Somebody in the back of the car asked me what I thought of the Sam Gilliam retrospective at the CAM. Eyes never leaving the road, I said, "resolutely second-rate." That seemed harsh, even for the freeway. "There's some good stuff," I hedged.
A few days later I was having difficulty defending that last remark. My mother-in-law, an intelligent and cultured lady with insecurities about her ability as a judge of contemporary art, asked me to point out the good ones, and tell her why.
I had to descibe my picks as interesting, rather than really good. I was interested in some of the "slice" pieces, large stained canvases with vertical sluices of color, because they reminded me of tie-dyed T-shirts, the original, drab handmade ones, not their ultra-bright latter day reincarnations. After all, it was 1970. But Gilliam is no Morris Louis.
Gilliam made several good beginnings. The best pieces in the show were some of the earliest: Green Slice and Least River, both from 1967, two drawings on wrinkled rice paper, were the progenitors of the much larger slice paintings, but unburdened by the larger works' epic aspirations. Likewise, another early piece titled A and the Carpenter made a lonely venture into social commentary, using a rumpled, unstretched, stain painting as a workman's drop cloth.
Several rooms full of shaped panels from the 80's and 90's are sliced, diced and rearranged in endless, pointless permutations. They've got pathos: a portrait of an artist scrabbling for new forms without new inspiration. The best I can say is that Gilliam never gives up, never stops experimenting. Many artists would fill similar mid-career rooms with uninspired, production-line pieces, bearing their name and signature style, but little else.
I chuckled at the postmodern irony of A and the Kitty, a set of constructivist building blocks poised with gymnastic verve and painted with swirling polychrome funk. Gilliam, like others in the 90's, takes the piss out of modernist conventions, in this case David Smith. On a nearby wall, The Generation Below Them could have been be a parody of an 80's Frank Stella wall construction, like the one the MFAH's sculpture garden across the street, if Stella's ubiquitous, ho-hum constructions from that dark decade were not already parodies of themselves. Given the earnestness of the rest of the show, I'm afraid irony wasn't Gilliam's intention.