Sam Gilliam's works exhibition shows difference between painting and sculpture

Painting on a flat, rectangular surface, as artists have done for centuries, was never enough for Sam Gilliam. The Washington artist who gained acclaim in the late 1960s and early 1970s doesn't believe there should be much difference between painting and sculpture, so he often combines the two.

Some of his paintings have beveled edges to make them look as if they are coming out of the wall they hang against. Some are flat, but have odd geometrical shapes. Others are three-dimensional, one resembles a brightly painted, asymmetrical coffee table and is seven and a half feet long. It bears the enigmatic title: "A and the Kitty."

The Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibit is the most extensive of Gilliam's nearly 40-year career in Washington. Titled "Sam Gilliam: a retrospective," it opens Saturday and features approximately 50 of his paintings and other works.

Gilliam doesn't employ the wooden stretchers that painters often use to keep the surfaces of their canvas rigid. Instead, he folds his canvases into accordion pleats, soaks them in acrylic paint and lets them dry before unfurling them to see what he has produced.

He gives them names like "Autumn Surf" and "Light Depth."

"While he is an African-American, he is not necessarily a maker of black art," said Jonathan P. Binstock, curator of the Corcoran show. "In the late 1960s, Gilliam himself argued adamantly against applying the term 'black art' to his work."

Gilliam has decried linking art and politics but has done a little of that himself. He did three towering panels of fabric in honor of Paul Robeson, whose sympathy with the Soviet Union made trouble for him during the Cold War, the AP says.

He also did a series of works he says referred to Martin Luther King Jr. But unless they look at the labels, most viewers would puzzle over what their subject could be.

At 72, Gilliam still works as an abstract painter. Asked what sort of works he's toiling on now, he replied: "They're kind of white, with spaces in between."

The Corcoran exhibit will be on view through Jan. 22. Then it goes to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., June 6-Sept. 3; to the Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, Georgia, Oct. 11-Dec. 31 and to the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, Jan. 27-May 6, 2007.


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