By Southwester Staff

In the 60 years since Sam Gilliam moved to Washington from Tupelo, Mississippi, his large, color-stained manipulated unstretched canvases, in the tradition of the Washington Color School artists, have been featured in major museums all over the world. 

Now at the Hirshhorn Museum, the retrospective exhibit Sam Giliam: Full Circle is a special treat for all who have followed the career of the pioneering abstractionist artist. 

The exhibit opens with one of Gilliam’s earlier works, Rail (1977), which is in the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection. The immense work, 15 feet in length with stained underpinning pieced canvas structure and deep tones, is a counterpoint to his latest works, a series of circular paintings (or tondos) created in 2021. 

Ranging in size from three to five feet in diameter, each tondo begins with a beveled wood panel, which is loaded 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. The course surfaces are abraded, smeared and scraped with a stiff metal rake and other tools to reveal a constellation of textures and colors below the surface. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, with its circular second floor gallery, provides a unique venue to experience the round-shaped tondos.

Gilliam’s approach focuses on the cornerstones of abstraction: color, materials and space as form.  He has cited the improvisatory ethos of  jazz as an influence in his works, and particularly jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. 

Sam Gilliam: Full Circle is on view through September 11, 2022. For more information, please visit

Editor’s Note: Sam Gilliam passed away on June 25, 2022, at the age of 88, after the publication of this article. Among the tributes from around the art world was a statement from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

“I have known Sam Gilliam for decades and appreciated his pioneering innovation in the arts. I am proud to count myself among the collectors of this visionary’s works and recognize Sam’s local, national and international significance,” said Reggie Van Lee, Board Chair of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

“Beyond his immense contributions to the visual arts, Sam Gilliam was a beloved mentor who cultivated the talent and spirit of District artists with an immense generosity of heart,” said Heran Sereke-Brhan, Executive Director of the Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.