The shape of Light Depth alters with every installation.
The shape of Light Depth alters with every installation.

"Sam Gilliam: a retrospective"

In 1968, Sam Gilliam dispensed with the convention of wooden painting stretchers and simply used the canvas itself, gathering, draping and suspending it. Gilliam's “draped” paintings were a groundbreaking idea from an artist unafraid of experimentation and change. "Sam Gilliam: a retrospective," currently on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, presents examples of the artist's ever-evolving work, from 1967 to the present.

Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C. in 1962 after receiving his master of arts degree in fine arts from the University of Louisville. While he had been exploring abstraction in the figurative manner of Bay Area artists like Nathan Oliveira and David Park, in D.C. he found himself in the milieu of the Washington Color School, artists like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland who were soaking and staining raw canvas with paint.

Gilliam began to explore, taping off geometric shapes on canvas and then staining them with paint, removing the tape to let colors bleed into each other. He moved on to pooling and pouring color on wet canvas, where it bloomed and intermingled in rich, glorious hues. He pushed his brushless interaction with paint and surface even further in two 1967 watercolors on Japanese paper, Green Slice and Least Rivers, in which he wadded, folded and crumpled the wet paper, creating fissures and creases of color. Green Slice is especially nice, with its translucent color on delicate paper. A splotch of radiant pink at the bottom seeps into lines of deep bluish green.


"Sam Gilliam: a retrospective"

Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

Through May 6

Expanding upon the success of the watercolors, Gilliam began to apply the same process to canvas using acrylics, creating one-shot paintings. Gilliam began with the lightest colors first, mimicking the process of watercolor. He soaked the canvas with the pale hues, adding darker ones later and then folding and wadding the whole thing up. Gilliam might add more paint on top of the wadded pile, but he waited until the work was dry to unfold it and see what it looked like.

Once the painting was dry, the die was cast and the painting either worked or it didn't. Sometimes Gilliam would keep paintings around for a while before passing judgment. Working this way didn't allow for touch-ups or additions, and whole paintings were discarded. In Seconds (1968) is one that wasn't. The marks of folds or supports under the wet canvas create a series of repeating lines that provide loose structure to the pale plum canvas with its gorgeous stains of blue, orange and green.

Gilliam was interested in the way the paintings interacted with the environment around them. He would stretch these works on beveled stretchers. Depending on which way the stretchers faced, they would either smoothly transition the work into the wall or create a slender edge for the painting, making it seem to float away from the wall.

When Gilliam decided to dispense with the painting stretcher, it was a pretty revolutionary decision. Artists have applied paint to board, stretched canvas and other taut supports for centuries. Gilliam was applying paint to a piece of canvas but taking that canvas and putting it out in the world as a three-dimensional object, one whose shape would alter with every installation. Light Depth (1969) is a 10-by-75-foot length of canvas. Gilliam knotted it in five places, creating baroque swags of color. One of the swags is cinched up with a string, breaking its sweep. The piece looms out into the CAMH's gallery. The work's installation, usually across a corner, is different each time, but the soaked tie-dye-like colors retain something of the '60s zeitgeist.

In pieces like “A” and the Carpenter I (1973), the canvas becomes even more of an object. Gilliam crumpled it into a pile over a pair of sawhorses, like a drop cloth left behind by an avant-garde painting contractor.

Although Gilliam continues to work with draped paintings, he has always engaged in other experiments. Many of the ones included in this show are less than successful. Firefly Blacktop (1977) is a stretched canvas with collaged elements almost completely obscured by thick daubs of plastic-looking black acrylic paint. For anyone who has ever painted, Blacktop looks like what happens when a painting goes bad on you — you keep adding things and adding things thinking it will help. It doesn't. So then you decide to smear a bunch of paint over the whole thing in a last-ditch — and unsuccessful — attempt to save it. Other equally gunky shaped canvases from the early '80s have the same unredeemable feeling about them.

Later works from the late '80s and '90s fare better, but not that much better. Gilliam crams together geometric pieces of wood and aluminum as well as angular sections of thickly painted canvas. The colors are wonderfully vivid, but it just feels too disjunctive, as if Gilliam is grasping at straws. He's trying too hard to cram in too many different shapes. They're reminiscent of late work by Frank Stella, and that isn't a good thing.

Gilliam's work from the 21st century is much more appealing. He's still piecing together geometric shapes into larger panels, but they aren't nearly as involved as earlier works. They seem much more confident and less frenetic. On the Canal and On the Canal with Blue (both 2003) use simple vertical panels of birch plywood that Gilliam has coated with lush, monochromatic layers of paint. Gilliam pours successive layers of color, and the layers from below are faintly visible through the top glaze of color.

Gilliam's zest for experimentation has led him to some of his best work — and some of his worst.


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