Hirshhorn Announces the First US Museum Retrospective of Pioneering Abstractionist Sam Gilliam in More Than 15 Years

Expansive Exhibition Will Trace Gilliam’s Six-Decade Career

The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden will present the first American museum retrospective of Sam Gilliam in more than 15 years opening in spring 2022. This groundbreaking exhibition will encompass Gilliam’s six-decade-long practice, from his early explorations of the ideas of the Washington Color School and his now-iconic “Drape” compositions to key examples of his most recent work.

Photo Credit: Sam Gilliam, “Light Depth,” 1969. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art. Gift from the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund), 2018.

One of America’s most influential living artists, Gilliam (b. 1933) is best known for abandoning the traditional stretcher apparatus to transform painting into a medium that bridged painting, sculpture and architecture and thus stands among the earliest examples of installation art. This major exhibition will span the full arc of Gilliam’s career, bringing attention to key moments in his innovative practice through a selection of paintings, sculptures and works on paper drawn from the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection and public and private collections. Among the exhibition’s highlights will be Gilliam’s “Light Depth” (1969), one of his most important “Drape” paintings, which was commissioned by Walter Hopps for an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and gifted to the Hirshhorn upon the Corcoran collection’s dispersal. This retrospective will be organized by Evelyn C. Hankins, senior curator at the Hirshhorn, with the full cooperation of the artist.

We are honored to present a Sam Gilliam retrospective,” said Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu. “This overdue in-depth survey builds on our museum’s mission: to showcase the most important local, national and international artists of our time. Gilliam’s influence spans these three realms. There is no more fitting place to celebrate his contribution to our understanding of abstraction than on the National Mall in his chosen hometown of Washington, D.C., at the national museum of modern art.”

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“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” Opens at the National Museum of African Art, April 11

Exhibition Features Major Loans From Museums in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria and Is on View in Washington for the First Time

Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa” opens at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art April 11 and runs until Nov. 29. The first major exhibition to explore global medieval Saharan Africa, “Caravans” features over 300 works primarily from the eighth–16th centuries A.D. from across the Saharan region of West Africa as well as its diverse peripheries and sites of exchange—from England and Italy to Iran and China, as well as Nigeria and Ghana.

Photo Credit: Inland Niger Delta artist; Djenné, Mopti Region, Mali; Equestrian Figure; 13th-15th century C.E.; Ceramic; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, museum purchase, 86-12-2; Photograph by Franko Khoury.

Developed at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University by its Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs Kathleen Bickford Berzock, the exhibition includes unprecedented loans from national museums and institutions in Morocco, Mali and Nigeria, the result of nearly a decade of collaborative research and planning with partners on the African continent.

The exhibition is a landmark opportunity to reconsider our understanding of world history,” said Kevin D. Dumouchelle, curator at the National Museum of African Art and coordinator of the exhibition in Washington. “Gold from West Africa was the engine that drove the movement of things, people and ideas across Africa, Europe and the Middle East in an interconnected medieval world. As the incredible works in this exhibition show, it is not possible to understand the emergence of the early modern world without this West African story. Africa’s history truly is a world history.”

Caravans of Gold” draws on recent archaeological discoveries, including rare fragments from major medieval African trading centers like Sijilmasa in Morocco and Gao and Tadmekka in Mali. Built in close collaboration with partner institutions in Africa, the exhibition displays only archaeological works from African museum collections or those in U.S. public collections legally exported from their country of origin. These “fragments in time” are seen alongside works of art that invite audiences to imagine them as they once were. The exhibition features works in a variety of media—terracotta, copper alloy, ivory, glass, leather, textiles (including fragments of Africa’s oldest), paper and parchment, and of course gold—that together tell the story of medieval Saharan West Africa, beginning with the spread of Islam in the eighth century A.D. and receding with the arrival of Europeans along the continent’s Atlantic Coast at the end of the 15th century. During this era, the Sahara Desert supported routes that connected to global networks of exchange. As these networks spread, so too did cultural practices, fostering the broad circulation of distinctive Saharan aesthetic and intellectual traditions connected to Islam.

The exhibition also includes significant works that illustrate the global interconnection of far-flung regions in the medieval period: from French sculptures of Mary and the infant Jesus carved in African ivory, to Italian altar pieces adorned with African gold, to world-famous sculptural works from sites in Nigeria, including Igbo-Ukwu and Ife, that remain marvels of technical sophistication and use European-sourced metals and trade-goods.

“‘Caravans of Gold’ is the starting point for a new understanding of the medieval past and for seeing the present in a new light,” Berzock said. “The legacy of medieval trans-Saharan exchange has largely been omitted from Western historical narratives and art histories, and certainly from the way that Africa is presented in art museums. ‘Caravans of Gold’ has been conceived to shine a light on Africa’s pivotal role in world history through the tangible materials that remain. We are honored to join with our colleagues in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria, as well as at the National Museum of African Art, in order to share this world-shaping story.”

HI Smartphone Application

Visitors to the exhibition can engage further with the artworks on their smartphones using the Smithsonian-developed, web-based HI application. Visitors can scan an interactive map to discover an added layer of digital content, including videos, images and key facts connecting the site and its histories and networks of exchange with art works featured in the exhibition. The HI application does not require download, and it can be accessed at www.hi.si.edu.

Educational and Public Programs

Public programs will accompany the exhibition to engage the museum’s diverse audiences K–12 to adult. The exhibition’s curator will conduct a “first look” public tour of exhibition highlights Saturday, April 11, at 2 p.m. Visitors should meet at the museum’s visitor desk on the Pavilion level at 2 p.m.

Exhibition Publication

The exhibition is accompanied by the publication Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time, edited by Berzock and co-published by the Block Museum of Art and Princeton University Press. Shortlisted for The Alice Award, the publication draws on the latest discoveries and research to construct a compelling and interdisciplinary look at medieval trans-Saharan exchange and its legacy. In the lavishly illustrated volume, 21 international contributors present case studies that form a rich portrayal of a distant time. Topics include descriptions of key medieval cities around the Sahara; networks of exchange that contributed to the circulation of gold, copper and ivory and their associated art forms; and medieval glass bead production in West Africa’s forest region.

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