Saturday in the Museum with Sam

Image: Sam Gilliam, Light Depth (1969).

On Saturdays we typically post about art that intersects with the world of food, which we hope makes sense as a dining guide for D.C. Today, however, we put the emphasis on D.C. and on food for the soul instead. We do so to honor the life and work of Sam Gilliam.

Gilliam passed away in his D.C. home at the age of 88 a week ago. Though born in Tupelo, Mississippi, he is most strongly associated with D.C., where he was part of the Washington Color School early in his career. His first solo exhibit was at the Phillips Collection. The piece we posted above was for a historic exhibit at the Corcoran in 1969. Not only did he live here, he taught art at McKinley High School and mentored many other artists. Artist Robin Bell took to social media to pay tribute saying, “Sam Gilliam was ahead of his time, and we are slowly catching up.”

To Bell’s point, one of the heart-warming things to see in the last few years was the art world bringing its attention back to Gilliam, not just to acknowledge his early breakthroughs but the power of his more recent pieces. Indeed, the Hirshhorn is currently mounting a solo exhibition of his work. The re-done East Building of the National Gallery will display one of his pieces.

The Hirshhorn summarizes his approach as focusing “keenly on the cornerstones of abstraction—form, color and material—from which he creates artworks that reflect his career-long engagement with art history and the improvisatory ethos of jazz.” Gilliam “canonical” works are the “drape” painting done by “suspending stretcherless lengths of painted canvas from the walls or ceilings of exhibition spaces, Gilliam transformed his medium and the contexts in which it was viewed.” The works could be of such scale and fluidity that they could interact with, and even become architecture. One gallery places this redefinition of the artist’s space in a historical context: “For an African American artist in the nation’s capital at the height of the Civil Rights movement, this was not merely an aesthetic proposition; it was a way of defining art’s role in a society undergoing dramatic change.”

The Hirshhorn exhibit is on display until September.