In a Station of the Metro, an Apparition of Color From Sam Gilliam

BY Molly Finnegan  August 18, 2011 at 1:58 PM EST

Sam Gilliam’s studio has the airy feel of a warehouse, but it boasts densities of colors and shapes. Sculptural paintings hang like scarves over the walls, and slabs of plywood are thick with hardened acrylics. Prints with more delicate, geometric patterns are stacked in various corners of the space.

Gilliam has only been in this studio for less than a year, but he’s been in Washington, D.C., for 49, “an artist [who] grew up around the Washington Color School painters,” he says, downplaying his role in the movement in the 1960s.

In that time he’s become one of the foremost abstract artists in the nation, someone who’s helped reconfigure perceptions of painting and who continually augments his own approaches to making art. Famous for taking his paintings out of the frame and draping them in sculptural formations, Gilliam has also made prints and worked with metal and other materials.

His most recent piece, a mural for the Takoma Metro station on the D.C.-Maryland border dedicated this summer, puts these efforts squarely in the public view. “From a Model to a Rainbow” is a mosaic of ceramic and glass mounted on aluminum. Luminous and rich in color, the piece faces the Metro entrance from its perch in a concrete tunnel below the elevated tracks. The movement and mechanics of the activity overhead is reflected in a large, three-dimensional circle — a wheel — that extends from the surface.

Spanning more than 400 square feet and topping 2,000 pounds, its design and assembly was a cross-continental effort. The mural was manufactured in Italy, where artisans worked from smaller sections of the design. The work arrived at Gilliam’s studio in pieces before it was erected.

“What they wanted was light,” Gilliam says. “Actually something that would make the tunnel…beautiful or lighted, so that it wasn’t a place that you feared when you got off the train late at night.”

[Watch a tour of “From a Model to a Rainbow” above.]

That requirement influenced another aspect of the project: Gilliam’s interest in translating one his draped paintings from the 1970s into a mosaic. Gilliam and his assistants refracted and rearranged colors and forms from the original painting into flat pieces. Changes in lighting cause the mural’s depth, brilliance and tone to shift from day to day.

The architectural quality of the original painting, and the movement implied by its muscular ripples and folds, are echoed by the materials of the new piece and its deference to environment and light.

The draped paintings spurred national interest in Gilliam, but they were part of a shift in the art world, emblematic of new ideas about color, the canvas and how artists might use them in challenging ways. The nation’s capital was an important center for these conversations and experiments by the time Gilliam arrived in 1962, after the city’s first generation of post-painterly abstractionists and Color Field painters had already become well-known in the art world. Gilliam befriended influential artists living and working in the city like Thomas Downing and Rockne Krebs, his work began to change, and he focused on “making it.”

“The first thing I did if I sold a painting would be to go to a paint store and stock up,” he says. “Always having materials to work with became the thing that catalyzed the work. Everybody was into transferring their thinking from oil paint to acrylic so that when you got together you talked paint, or you talked about how to make paint.

“The thinking about painting started with the idea of making the material, or using the material, and I think that these kinds of ideas enforced the way one worked, particularly with me.”

Gilliam started to work directly on the floor, folding his canvases and experimenting with the paint. These were ways of “letting things happen naturally with the paint by handling it,” he says. By taking his work off the frame, he could work directly into the space of the gallery. As he continued to pursue large-scale projects, many of them public art works, he started to incorporate metal and other architectural materials, among them aluminum and steel.

The light brings constant novelty to the new piece, encouraging frequent passersby to spot the way in which components of the image alternatively chafe and interact with one another. Various creases in the refracted painting repeat, and red, green and sapphire twist across a pale background of grays, whites, and muted blues and emerge or recede with the elements. Glass pieces flash and glitter when the sun is bright.

“Every time someone comes to the studio we offer them a trip to see the mural,” Gilliam says. “That becomes our Eifel Tower, in a sense. It becomes our present and a sort of monument to what we are doing.”

Editor’s Note: Read this story for more about Gilliam and the Washington Color School.