This spring, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
is presenting an exhibition by pioneering abstractionist artist Sam Gilliam. Between May 25 and Sept. 11, Sam Gilliam: Full Circle pairs a series of circular paintings (or tondos) created in 2021 with Rail (1977), a landmark painting in the Hirshhorns permanent collection. Filling the museums second-floor inner-circle gallery, Gilliams first solo exhibition at the Hirshhorn reflects the breadth of his multilayered practice and mark the first exhibition in Gilliams chosen hometown of Washington, D.C., since 2007. Full Circle is organized by Evelyn C. Hankins, the Hirshhorns head curator.
In the 60 years since moving to Washington, Gilliam has produced a prolific body of abstraction across media through which he has continually pursued new avenues of artistic expression. He initially rose to prominence in the late 1960s making large, color-stained manipulated, unstretched canvases. Gilliam continues to experiment with staining, soaking and pouring pigments, elaborating on the process-oriented tradition of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and other Washington Color School artists. In 1972, Gilliam represented the United States at the 36th Venice Biennale, and returned in 2017 with Yves Klein Blue, a draped work that welcomed visitors to the Venice Giardini. Gilliams approach focuses keenly on the cornerstones of abstractionform, color and materialfrom which he creates artworks that reflect his career-long engagement with art history and the improvisatory ethos of jazz.
The Hirshhorns institutional support for Sam Gilliam began with the acquisition of his landmark painting Rail within a year of its creation, said Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu. The museum has since championed his practice by presenting this and other major works in exhibitions. Full Circle shows Gilliams most recent works in recognition of his indefatigable vision, presented in his chosen hometown on the National Mall at the national museum of modern art.
I am greatly looking forward to premiering this new body of work, Gilliam said. The tondo series introduced in this show encapsulate many of the ideas that I have been developing throughout my career. Just as importantly, they reflect my current thinking about color, materials, and space. These spaces determined by color and texture are limitless.
Sam Gilliams most recent engagement with the Hirshhorn reflects his tireless propulsion of the through lines of abstraction. His tondos expand the body of beveled-edge abstract paintings that Gilliam first pioneered in the 1960s. Ranging in size from 3 to 5 feet in diameter, each tondo begins with a beveled wood panel, which the artist loads with layers of dense, vibrant pigments, their aggregate effect heightened through the addition of thickening agents, sawdust, shimmering metal fragments, wood scraps and other studio debris. Using a stiff metal rake along with more traditional tools, Gilliam then abrades, smears and scrapes the coarse surfaces to reveal a constellation of textures and colors below.
The series is being shown alongside Rail (1977), a stellar Black painting by Gilliam in the Hirshhorns collection work that marks some of the artists earliest experiments with pronounced materiality. With its immense scale of more than 15 feet in length, stained underpinning, pieced canvas structure and deep tones, Rail offers a resonant counterpoint to the artists recent tondos.
For six decades, Gilliam (American, b. 1933, Tupelo, Mississippi) has created groundbreaking work in a range of media. After earning his Bachelor of Arts (1955) and Master of Fine Arts (1961) from the University of Louisville in Kentucky, he moved to Washington in 1962 and has since lived and worked here. Gilliams work has been exhibited internationally in solo and group shows at institutions and biennials such as Tate Modern, London; the Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland; the Museum of Modern Art, New York City; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Dia Beacon, New York; the Venice Biennale, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City, among others. His work is held in the collections of major museums worldwide, including the Musée dArt Moderne de la Ville de Paris; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Menil Collection, Houston; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City; and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.