The most prominently placed artist at this year’s Venice Biennale is Sam Gilliam, whose new drape piece hangs above the entrance to the central pavilion in the Giardini, greeting visitors to Christine Macel’s curated exhibition, “Viva Arte Viva.” In September, Gilliam’s classic drape pieces will take center stage at New York’s Mnuchin Gallery, in his first New York solo gallery show in 32 years.
The exhibition, which will include approximately ten works, will span Gilliam’s career, but will focus on his drape paintings, which in 1968 were his great innovation after he began making beveled-edge pieces the previous year. The gallery will also premiere new paintings from his “Homage to the Square,” which Gilliam has been making over the past year. Gilliam did a 28-foot-long one as a commission for the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last September, but the “Homage to the Square” works have never been shown as a series. “He is still staining and pouring,” said Sukanya Rajaratnam, a partner in Mnuchin Gallery and curator of the exhibition, “and the goal is to draw the arc to the present.” The new pieces constitute “a different body of work, but there is that connection.”
A profile in the Washington Post last summer told the story of Gilliam’s recent recovery from medical complications and his energetic return to painting. At 83, he lives and works in Washington, D.C. He began making art in the 1960s. That drape piece at the central pavilion is actually his second appearance at the Venice Biennale. The late curator Walter Hopps, a great champion of Gilliam’s, included his work in the Biennale in 1972. But Gilliam’s visibility faded in the 1980s and ’90s. In the past few years, interest in his work has been revived, partly through the efforts of Los Angeles gallery David Kordansky, which represents him internationally (and is cooperating on the Mnuchin show). Gilliam’s work was the subject of a traveling museum retrospective organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C., in 2005, and he will have another traveling retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Basel in June 2018, but he hasn’t had a solo gallery show in New York since 1985, when he exhibited at the Monique Knowlton Gallery in SoHo.
Rajaratnam wants to put Gilliam’s work in the context of the postwar art and Color Field painting Mnuchin shows. Three years ago, for example, the gallery did a show of Morris Louis’s veil paintings. “He has been getting all this attention lately,” Rajaratnam said, “And I thought, he needs to be contextualized with his peers.”
She said she started looking more closely at Gilliam’s work after the gallery did an exhibition of David Hammons’s tarp paintings in 2010, which, curators pointed out to her at the time, bear affinities with Gilliam’s drapes. She noted that, while Gilliam has been getting museum placement recently—the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art have acquired pieces—many institutions still do not own the early drape paintings. “Pollock took painting off the easel and put it on floor,” she said. “Sam took it off the stretcher, released it from its support. He hasn’t been given enough credit for radicalizing the medium.”