The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At the Hirshhorn, Sam Gilliam’s last works grab the spotlight, quietly

‘Full Circle’ features recent works by the Washington artist, who died last month, along with a piece from 1977

Installation view of “Sam Gilliam: Full Circle” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which includes a 1977 work, “Rail,” right, and several recent paintings on round wood panels, or “tondos.” (Ron Blunt/Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)
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If you’re familiar with the abstract painter Sam Gilliam — who died June 25 at his home in D.C. — you’ve probably seen his iconic drape paintings. Swooping across museum walls, gracing high-ceilinged halls, some stretching over 70 feet in length, they are the kind of dramatic artworks that inspire you to stand back with awe, even half a century after they first propelled Gilliam onto the international art scene. But Gilliam’s most recent body of work — a series of smaller round paintings on wood panels (or “tondos”) created between 2021 and 2022, on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden — asks something different of us: to get up close. Like, really close.

Sam Gilliam, abstract artist who went beyond the frame, dies at 88

At the Hirshhorn, 17 of Gilliam’s tondos are on view along with an early canvas, “Rail” (1977). The show, which opened a month before the artist’s death, is fittingly called “Full Circle.”

Consider the exhibition a way of paying respects to the artist — a way to give these final works a little more attention than you might ordinarily do. Here, it’s the details that create the drama. Up close, contrasting colors flood your field of vision. Paint cascades down the panels. Their surfaces appear so textured that you have to fight the urge to touch them. Looking carefully at the piece “Exciting,” you can perceive flecks of wood chips, shiny metal bits and studio debris buried in the paint like it’s an archaeological site. You can see the spots on the panel where it looks like Gilliam grabbed the thick paint with his bare hands and sculpted it to his liking.

During a recent visit, more than one visitor could be heard to comment that all the paintings look the same. And on some level, they do. But that’s one of the misleading qualities of abstract art: the illusion that it can be absorbed in a glance and summarized in a sentence. It’s a blue square, a white blob, a smattering of red. What else is there to see or say?

The answer, of course, is plenty — but only with patience. And the instinct to stop at our first impressions might say more about us than the work. In a 2020 interview, Gilliam said he believes abstract art is political because it asks you to open up to a world that is fundamentally different from your own. At a time when stereotypes cloud political discourse, when social media has become a narcissistic hall of mirrors and when relatability has become a lazy metric by which to assess art, abstraction’s tall order — to look outside ourselves and beyond our assumptions — feels particularly imperative.

Whether Gilliam’s work is political in a more conventional sense has long been debated. Working in an era during which many Black artists sought to make direct references to social justice and advocated for art as activism, Gilliam remained almost singularly focused on abstraction, positioning himself in the second wave of the Washington Color School. Arts institutions don’t seem to know how to grapple with this. In wall texts and bios, they awkwardly name-check “April 4,” one of Gilliam’s few political artworks (an oblique reference to the date of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination), as if in disbelief that a Black artist might not have been interested in representing political strife.

If other artists engage racism and inequality directly, Gilliam’s work has a way of alluding to the structures beneath the surface. Through abstraction, he challenges the shorthand we rely on to read a painting, the crutches of our own biased thinking. You can see this even in interpretations of Gilliam’s signature drape paintings, which some have likened to hanging laundry or African American quilts — descriptions Gilliam rejected. What if his intention is subtler than our eye can immediately discern?

The works at the Hirshhorn can’t be reduced to first impressions. Take, for example, “Something Is Going On!” — a work whose title seems to cry out, almost desperately. It draws your attention to its thick paint, spilling over the edges, and a burst of heart-shaped red that seems to pulse like a wound.

Look closely, and you can see a slight contrast in tonality between the pinker “Cerebral” and the bluer “Ceremony,” a subtle shift that almost soothes the eye. You can sense the rising feeling of moving from the undulating, shimmering “You Blue Moon” to the cloudy “A Sketch at Morn” hung beside it. And if you take the time to read such poetic titles as “A Sunday Heart” and “Pretty Baby,” you’ll be primed to feel the parallel warmth and joy the paintings stir.

In much of Gilliam’s work, it seems like he is testing the medium itself: He breaks down the surface, piles on the paint. “Rail,” which is thick with black impasto and bright colors fighting to be seen, has been cut apart and stitched back together.

Many of the recent round panels follow this same line of experimentation. Several have been sliced into quarters, which give the ones that are left intact — like the sweetly titled, side-by-side pairing “Keep” and “You” — a feeling of expansiveness. In two paintings, Gilliam left the crevices between the slices filled with paint, preserving a trace of connection.

Gilliam has sometimes been called the artist who, with his drape paintings, liberated the canvas from its stretchers. With this, his final show, it really is as if he has come full circle, returning to paint on a flat surface. And yet, even within those confines, Gilliam’s art seems to stretch outward, reaching into the gallery around it and expanding our sightlines. His brush may have been laid down for good, but here, his work knows no bounds.

If you go

Full Circle

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW.

Dates: Through Sept. 11.

Admission: Free.

Where to find more Sam Gilliam

Gilliam, who lived in D.C. for 60 years, has left his mark on the city — from prestigious museums to a pedestrian Metro underpass.

In museums on the Mall

At opposite ends of the National Mall, you can see bookends of Gilliam’s artistic endeavors: an early abstract work and a major 2016 commission, regarded as a capstone of his career. At the National Gallery of Art, in a gallery showcasing such Washington Color School artists as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, you’ll find Gilliam’s bright 1965 abstraction “Shoot Six,” in which six shades of color seem to stretch out from the canvas like rays of light. At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gilliam’s large-scale, five-panel installation “Yet Do I Marvel (Countee Cullen)” greets visitors with jagged lines and a jazzy energy.

At arts venues around town

The Reach at the Kennedy Center: To get a glimpse of the signature drape style that vaulted Gilliam onto the international stage in 1969, check out “Carousel Light Depth” (1969) — a suspended canvas covered in hot pinks, bubbly blues and scintillating silvers that stretches along the wall of the Reach’s Studio K, where you can see the asymmetrical, lunging piece from two viewing levels.

Phillips Collection: Gilliam’s first museum exhibition was at the Phillips, which has recently rehung “Red Petals” in its first-floor lobby. Created specifically for the 1967 show, the work is a swirl of poppy reds and fiery oranges, which Gilliam made by staining the canvas and folding it in on itself — a precursor to his drape-painting technique. A new show, “Lou Stovall: The Museum Workshop,” also features work by Gilliam, reflecting a decades-long collaboration between the two artists. On view: “Big Red Piece,” a beveled-edge painting that Stovall built the stretcher for, and two 1972 prints by Gilliam made in Stovall’s workshop.

Kreeger Museum: Gilliam had a significant role at the Kreeger, as the first contemporary artist to have an exhibition there. Today you can find “Cape,” a 1969 stained canvas that is part of his beveled-edge, or “Slice,” series. (His Cubism-infused, acrylic-on-birchwood sculpture “Graining” will go on view later this summer.)

Howard University Gallery of Art:Tulip Series: Petal” is a good example of Gilliam’s work in the 1980s. It’s a puzzlelike sculpture that looks like what you’d get if you sampled drip paintings like jazz tunes.

In public buildings

From the outside, there’s nothing remarkable about the John A. Wilson Building, which houses the Executive Office of the Mayor and the Council of the District of Columbia. It’s a quiet government building with stained walls and dingy lighting. But stroll around the first floor and you’ll notice that the space doubles as a gallery for some of D.C.’s finest artists, including Gilliam. At the southwest corner hangs the artist’s “Steps and Folds.” An accordion-shaped mishmash of images, it evokes a picture perpetually coming into focus, or a sentence uttered underwater. Gilliam’s work can also be found — between your tech-conference sessions or comic con events — at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, which boasts Gilliam’s “Many Things” (2003) and “Chevrons” (1984). And later this summer, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library plans to install Gilliam’s 1967 acrylic-stained canvas “Ship.”

Out and about

There’s something exciting about unexpectedly bumping into art on the street, like running into a friend. That’s the effect of seeing Gilliam’s “From Model to Rainbow” at the Takoma Metro station. It’s the kind of street art that doesn’t interrupt the space — I’m looking at you, murals in gentrifying neighborhoods — but respects it, offering a counterpoint to the subway system’s characteristic concrete with abstract, colorful tiles that create an illusion of three-dimensional fabric. At the Shepherd Park/Juanita E. Thornton Neighborhood Library, there’s another hidden-but-striking Gilliam: a copper piece called “Library Stars/Library Obelisk,” which climbs up the front of the demure brick structure, reaching skyward.