Sam Gilliam: Full Circle

Abstract multicolor painting on a circular canvas

In the 60 years since moving to Washington, DC, Sam 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. Gilliam’s approach focuses 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. Full Circle shows Gilliam’s 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.

This exhibition reflects Gilliam’s tireless propulsion of the through lines of abstraction. His new round paintings (or 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.

Gilliam’s 2021 works will be shown alongside “Rail” (1977), a stellar “Black” painting by Gilliam in the Hirshhorn’s collection marks some of the artist’s 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.

“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 Gilliam: Full Circle is organized by Head Curator Evelyn Hankins.

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The Hirshhorn mourns the life of Sam Gilliam.
Anyone wishing to share their expression of sympathy is invited to email The museum will forward condolences to Sam Gilliam’s family and studio family.

About the Artist

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. Gilliam’s 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 d’Art 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.

Portrait of artist Sam Gilliam
Sam Gilliam portrait by Fredrik Nilsen Studio



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Sam Gilliam: Full Circle is organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and has been made possible through generous lead support from Bank of America. Major support has been provided by John and Barbara Vogelstein, Agnes Gund, Reuben and Kimberly Charles, Kera and Bennie F. Johnson, and Sika Capital: A Family Office. Additional funding was provided by Richard Gould and Lena Skanby, Vence and Angela Bonham, Jade and Sarah Daniels, Alteronce Gumby, Dr. Darryl Atwell, Henry L. Thaggert III, the Hirshhorn International Council, and the Hirshhorn Collectors’ Council.

Bank of America