“Light Depth” (1969) by Sam Gilliam


THE HIRSHHORN MUSEUM and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., plans an expansive look at the six-decade career of pioneering abstractionist Sam Gilliam. Exploring key moments in his innovative painting practice, the retrospective will open at the Smithsonian museum on the National Mall in spring 2022.

“Inspired by the Hirshhorn’s extraordinary holdings, this exhibition is our opportunity to situate Sam Gilliam’s practice in a broader international context while acknowledging his profound influence on subsequent generations of artists,” Evelyn C. Hankins, senior curator at the Hirshhorn, said in a statement.

Hankins is organizing the show with the full cooperation of the artist, the museum said. Occupying an entire floor, the exhibition will showcase paintings, sculpture, and works on paper drawn from the Hirshhorn’s holdings (seven works, according to the museum’s online database) and loans from other public and private collections.

One of America’s great post-war painters, Gilliam is recognized for his groundbreaking approaches. Dating to the mid- to late-1960s, he began experimenting with his dynamic, color-washed canvases—wrapping them on top of frames, developing what have become known as his Beveled-Edge paintings and removing the canvas from the stretcher entirely, creating Drape paintings. These dramatic sculptural forms and installations are displayed suspended from ceilings and draped along walls.

“Light Depth” (1969), shown above, is considered one of Gilliam’s most important Drape paintings. Stretching 75 feet, the work is in the collection of the Hirshhorn and will be featured in the forthcoming retrospective. A gift from the Corcoran Gallery of Art when the Washington museum was shuttered and its collection was dispersed to a variety of local institutions in 2018, “Light Depth” was commissioned by Walter Hopps for an exhibition at the Corcoran.

The iconic work was shown in “Gilliam, Krebs, McGowin” (1969) at the Corcoran and also appeared in the group show Hopps organized at the Venice Biennale in 1972. Gilliam’s inclusion in that show was historic. He became the first African American artist to represent the United States at the international exhibition.

Three decades later, “Light Depth” was on view in “Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective” (2005-06), a traveling show organized by the Corcoran. The Hirshhorn exhibition will be the first major U.S. museum show of Gilliam since the Corcoran retrospective opened in 2005.

“Inspired by the Hirshhorn’s extraordinary holdings, this exhibition is our opportunity to situate Sam Gilliam’s practice in a broader international context while acknowledging his profound influence on subsequent generations of artists.” — Curator Evelyn C. Hankins

BORN IN TUPELO, MISS., Gilliam lives and works in Washington. In July 2019, he joined Pace Gallery, marking the first time in his career he has New York representation. Pace is working with Gilliam in collaboration with Los Angeles based David Kordansky Gallery, where the artist has been affiliated since 2012.

On Aug. 10, a special site-specific installation went on long-term view at Dia Beacon in Upstate New York. Gilliam’s “Double Merge” is composed of two massive Drape paintings from 1968, both titled “Carousel II.”

Later this month, David Kordansky is staging a solo presentation of new paintings on paper by Gilliam at The Art Show, organized by the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

While renewed appreciation has amplified his national and international attention, Gilliam has been long-celebrated by his adopted hometown since his early association with the Washington Color School. The local connection makes the forthcoming Hirshhorn retrospective particularly meaningful.

“This overdue in-depth survey builds on our museum’s mission: to showcase the most important local, national and international artists of our time,” Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu said in a statement.

“Gilliam’s influence spans these three realms. There is no more fitting place to consider and celebrate his place in the canon than on the National Mall in his chosen hometown of Washington, D.C., at the national museum of modern art.” CT


IMAGES: Top of page, SAM GILLIAM, “Light Depth,” 1969 (acrylic on canvas, 120 × 900 inches / 304.8 × 2286 cm). | Courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art, Gift from the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund), 2018; Above right, Sam Gilliam Portrait. | Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photography by Fredrik Nilsen Studio


UPDATE: Plans for this show evolved in the ensuing two years before it opened. Ultimately, the Hirshhorn presented “Sam Gilliam: Full Circle,” a survey of new tondo paintings in conversation with “Rail” (1977), a monumental “Black” painting by Gilliam from the museum’s collection (May 25-Sept. 11, 2022).


“Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective” coincided with Sam Gilliam’s 2005 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a four-decade survey. Described as “the first in-depth book devoted to this major figure,” the volume includes forewords by Walter Hopps and Jacqueline Serwer, who was chief curator of the Corcoran at the time. Currently, Serwer is chief curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “The Music of Color: Sam Gilliam, 1967-1973” was published to accompany Sam Gilliam’s recent exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel, his first solo museum survey in Europe. The volume features contributions from artists Rashid Johnson and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, among others. “Sam Gilliam: 1967-1973” documents the aristt’s 2017 exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery, his first solo show in New York in 25 years.


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