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Artist Sam Gilliam Creates Site-Specific Work for the Phillips Collection's 90th Anniversary
Sam Gilliam. Red Petals, 1967. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C.- In conjunction with The Phillips Collection’s 90th anniversary celebration in 2011, Washington-based, internationally recognized artist Sam Gilliam creates a site-specific work for the museum’s signature, elliptical staircase, on view Jan. 29–April 24, 2011.

Gilliam, known for his innovation with unsupported canvas, plans to suspend and drape nylon panels along the east wall of the staircase, which he describes as “a beautiful, curved frame.” These large-scale, abstract panels refer to nature and at least one will have a cut-out, inviting viewers ascending and descending the stairs to engage with the surrounding area. For inspiration, Gilliam turned to paintings in the Phillips’s permanent collection, noting specifically Arthur Dove’s Flour Mill II (1938), which the artist remembers seeing early in his career.

As with many of Gilliam’s other works, the piece challenges preconceived categories of art making, with collage, watercolor, painting, drawing, sculpture, and architecture all in play at once. Gilliam says of his process, “I’ve never thought about only painting, I’ve thought about art. [As an artist] you can’t know the present or future without knowing the past. Then you build your own concepts.” The gallery adjacent to the stairwell features an installation of works by Dove, including Flour Mill II, Goin’ Fishin’ (1925), and Me and the Moon (1937), all influential to Gilliam’s new piece.

“The Phillips is honored to engage once again in its decades-long relationship with this powerful and important artist, Sam Gilliam,” says Director Dorothy Kosinski. “The unique piece will transform a central space at the museum with color and spirit, amplifying an anniversary celebration.”

Born in Tupelo, Miss. in 1933, Gilliam grew up in Louisville, Ky. and received both his B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Louisville. Since moving to the Washington, D.C. area in 1962, he has taught in art schools and universities, including the Corcoran College of Art and Design, the Maryland Institute College of Art, and the University of Maryland. His awards include National Endowment for the Arts Activities Grants in 1967, 1973–1975, and 1989.

The Phillips Collection’s rich history with Gilliam began in 1967 with his first solo museum exhibition. Immediately thereafter, the Phillips purchased Red Petals (1967) and went on to acquire five additional works by the artist dating from 1965 to 1979. Gilliam also used the Phillips for study, admiring in particular works by Mark Rothko, Georges Braque, and Augustus Vincent Tack. Most recently, he participated in the Phillips oral history program; the interview will be available by appointment in the Phillips library beginning in January.

In 2011, The Phillips Collection celebrates its 90th anniversary and launches the countdown to its centennial. A host of exhibitions, programs, and events throughout the year debut stunning new acquisitions in contemporary art, engage artists in conversation with the collection, and tell the story of artistic innovation that has been the heart of the museum since Duncan Phillips opened its doors in 1921.

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