Art & Design

The Final Rotation: Sam Gilliam’s Full Circle at the Hirshhorn

The Final Rotation: Sam Gilliam's Full Circle at the Hirshhorn

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The painting Rail (1977) greets you upon entering the exhibition. The 15-foot-wide “Black” painting features the beveled edges and layered style seen throughout Full Circle. Its rectangular shape and darkness—in stark contrast to the round, white, wooden edges of the other paintings on view—exude a sense of beginning and ending, of possibility and finality.

In the collective blackness, all of Gilliam’s colors and contexts exist. From far away, the canvas appears saturated with darkness, and the closer you get, areas of black paint are scraped down, exposing bright, dramatic splotches of yellow, red, and blue. The array of colors is so pronounced that you can see a very deliberate area where Gilliam reapplied the black paint, drawing your eyes to the center. Rail is the chaos from which genius emerged, a premonition realized through the tondos of Full Circle, and a reminder of Gilliam’s life-long dedication to experimentation. 

Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, Gilliam developed a love for painting at an early age. By the time he reached the 5th grade, he attracted the support of his teacher and was placed in a special arts program when he entered junior high school. Gilliam went on to study fine arts at the University of Louisville, where he received both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. In 1962, he moved to Washington, DC, where his exposure to the Washington Color School caused a shift in style that would mark the turning point in his practice. By 1965, Gilliam became the first artist to drape and suspend his pigment-soaked canvases instead of stretching them around a frame, a technique for which he received widespread acclaim. 

Throughout his career, Gilliam was influenced by jazz music for its improvisational nature and the space it creates for meditation and moments of melancholy. Full Circle reads like a track listing to the album of a visionary. Before I could even begin to truly analyze the objects themselves, or delve into what each is intended to represent, I was struck first and foremost by how everything made me feel: happy, full of promise, and always aware of life’s ups and downs. I was especially taken with Something’s Going On, You Blue Moon, and Lucky, all from 2021. 

 

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