Sam Gilliam (/ˈɡɪliəm/GHIL-ee-əm; November 30, 1933 – June 25, 2022) was an American
color field painter and
lyrical abstractionist artist. Gilliam was associated with the
Washington Color School, a group of Washington, D.C.-area artists that developed a form of abstract art from color field painting in the 1950s and 1960s. His works have also been described as belonging to
abstract expressionism and
lyrical abstraction. He worked on stretched, draped and wrapped canvas, and added sculptural
3D elements. He was recognized as the first artist to introduce the idea of a draped, painted canvas hanging without stretcher bars around 1965. This was a major contribution to the
Color Field School and has had a lasting impact on the contemporary art canon.Arne Glimcher, Gilliam's art dealer at
Pace Gallery, wrote following his death that "His experiments with color and surface are right up there with the achievements of
Gilliam listened to his college professor's advice to become a high school teacher and was able to teach art at Washington's McKinley High School. Gilliam was devoted to developing his painting during his weekdays reserved for the classroom. In 1962, Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C., after marrying Washington Post reporter
Dorothy Butler who is also the first African American female reporter at the Washington Post. Later Gilliam lived in Washington, D.C., with his long-time partner, Annie Gawlak. They were married in 2018 after a 35-year partnership.
Career in the 1960s, early 1970s
During the social upheaval of the 1960s in the United States, Gilliam began painting works that were abstract but still made bold, declarative statements, inspired by the specific conditions of the
African-American experience. This was at a time that "abstract art was said by some to be irrelevant to black African life." Abstraction remained a critical issue for artists such as Gilliam. His early style developed from brooding figural abstractions into large paintings of flatly applied color, pushing Gilliam to eventually remove the easel by eliminating the stretcher. During this time period, Gilliam painted large color-stained canvases, which he draped and suspended from the walls and ceilings, comprising some of his best-known artwork.
Gilliam was influenced by
German Expressionists such as
Paul Klee, and the American
Bay Area Figurative School artist
Nathan Oliveira. His early influences included
Morris Louis and
Kenneth Noland. He said that he found many clues about how to go about his work from
Pablo Picasso, and
Paul Cézanne. In 1963,
Thomas Downing, an artist who identified himself with the Washington Color School, introduced Gilliam to this new school of thought. Around 1965, Gilliam became the first painter to introduce the idea of the unsupported canvas. He was inspired to do this by observing laundry hanging outside his Washington studio. His drape paintings were suspended from ceilings or arranged on walls or floors, representing a sculptural third dimension in painting. Gilliam said that his paintings are based on the fact that the framework of the painting is in real space. He was attracted to its power and the way it functioned. Gilliam's draped canvases change in each environment where they are arranged and frequently he embellished the works with metal, rocks, and wooden beams. He received countless public and private commissions for these draped canvases which earned him the title of the "father of the draped canvas". One of his last, and largest, works within this series was titled Seahorses (1975), made for the
Philadelphia Museum of Art. The work consisted of six parts and was made of hundreds of feet of canvas hung on the outside walls of the museum.
During the 1960s, Gilliam also experimented with beveled-edge paintings, often using acrylic paint to color over the edges of the canvas onto the frames of the painting. Similarly to his drape paintings, these beveled paintings blurred the line between sculpture and paintings, while retaining a distinct commitment to abstraction.
In 1971, he boycotted an event at the
Whitney Museum, in New York, in support of and in solidarity with the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition as a protest against the museum for failing to consult with black art experts in selecting art for the show.
In 1972, Gilliam represented the United States at the
36th Venice Biennale in a group show curated by
Walter Hopps. His draped canvas Baroque Cascade (1968) was exhibited at the show, a multi-canvas installation that stretched over 75 feet before being hung from the rafters in the exhibition hall. The work had originally been shown at the
Corcoran Gallery in 1969 in a show of Gilliam's work organized by Hopps. Gilliam was the first African-American artist to show at the Biennale for the United States, although no African-American artist represented the US with a solo show until
Robert Colescott's solo exhibition in 1997.
In 1975, Gilliam veered away from the draped canvases, and became influenced by
jazz musicians such as
Miles Davis and
John Coltrane. He started producing dynamic geometric
collages, which he called "Black Paintings" because they are painted in shades of black. Works like Rail (1977) typify this style, with thick layers of black paint and outlines of sharp geometric shapes.
In the 1980s Gilliam's style changed dramatically once more, transitioning to paintings reminiscent of African patchwork
quilts from his childhood, using an improvisational approach. These works often included multiple canvases carved into geometric shapes and combined into a single form. The transition between his "Black Paintings" and quilt-inspired paintings can be seen in his Wild Goose Chase series.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Gilliam was largely overlooked by the institutional art world. He showed his work very infrequently outside of Washington, D.C., during this time, as a result of both his desire to work in his own community and a decline in interest from critics and museums in New York. Despite this isolation from a broader audience, he continued to produce paintings in new forms and developed new approaches to abstraction, including experimentation with metal forms and the use of washi paper to create sculptural works, and exhibited extensively in D.C. and across the Southeast. In 2019, journalist Greg Allen wrote about Gilliam's insulation from mainstream art spaces in Art in America, saying "if, at some periods in his extensive career, Gilliam seemed invisible, it’s simply because people refused to see him." Gilliam himself said in 1989 that "I’ve learned the difference between what is really good and real for me and what is something that I dreamed would be real and good for me. I’ve learned to — I don’t mean to say I’ve learned to love this — but I’ve learned to accept this, the matter of staying here."
Beginning in the 2000s, Gilliam's career saw a marked resurgence in critical and institutional attention, starting with his first full-scale retrospective at the
Corcoran Gallery in 2005. In 2012, Los Angeles-based gallerist David Kordansky visited Gilliam in Washington with the artist
Rashid Johnson to offer representation and begin planning an exhibition, a request that reportedly moved Gilliam to tears. Kordansky subsequently helped place major works by the artist in high-profile institutions like the
Museum of Modern Art and
Metropolitan Museum of Art and organized several exhibitions of Gilliam's work.  Throughout the 2000s and 2010s Gilliam participated in a large number of high-profile solo and group shows, including exhibiting at the Venice Biennale for a second time in 2017, in the
Giardini's central pavilion for the show Viva Arte Viva. His work Yves Klein Blue (2017), a large-scale draped painting, was hung outside the entrance of the venue. His first European retrospective, Sam Gilliam: Music of Color, was hosted in 2018 by the
Kunstmuseum Basel. In 2019 Gilliam acquired representation through a New York-based gallery for the first time,
In 2022, one month before his death, he debuted a series of
tondo paintings in a solo show at the
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The abstract paintings, the first of Gilliam's works in the tondo form, are circular canvases in beveled frames containing fields of color, sometimes overflowing onto the frames themselves. The paintings' beveled frames represented a return to a form the artist had originally explored in the 1960s and 1970s.
Gilliam had many
commissions, grants, awards, and honorary doctorates.
His honors included eight honorary doctorates, and the Kentucky Governor's Award in the Arts. He received several
National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Longview Foundation Award, and a
Guggenheim Fellowship. He also received the
Art Institute of Chicago's Norman W. Harris Prize, and an Artist's Fellowship from the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. He was named the 2006 University of Louisville Alumnus of the Year.
In 1987 Gilliam was selected by the
Smithsonian Art Collectors Program to produce a print to celebrate the opening of the
S. Dillon Ripley Center in the
National Mall. He donated his talent to produce In Celebration, a 35-color limited-edition serigraph that highlighted his trademark use of color. The sale benefited the Smithsonian Associates, the continuing education branch of the larger Smithsonian Institution. In early 2009, he again donated his talents to the Smithsonian Associates to produce a 90-color serigraph entitled Museum Moment, which he described as "a celebration of art".
In April 2003, a dedication of the installation of Gilliam's work, Matrix Red-Matrix Blue, was held at
Rutgers Law School,
Newark. In May 2011, his work From a Model to a Rainbow was installed in the
Washington Metro Underpass at 4th and Cedar, NW.
In January 2015, Gilliam was awarded the Medal of Art by the U.S. State Department for his longtime contributions to Art in Embassies and cultural diplomacy. His work was shown in embassies and diplomatic facilities in over 20 countries during his career.
In 1962, Gilliam married
Dorothy Butler, a Louisville native and the first African-American female
columnist at The Washington Post. They divorced in the 1980s but have three daughters (Stephanie,
Leah) and also have three grandchildren. After the divorce he met Annie Gawlak, owner of the former G Fine Art gallery in Washington, D.C. The pair were married in 2018 after having been together in a 35-year partnership.
Gilliam died of
renal failure at his home in Washington, D.C., on June 25, 2022, at the age of 88.
Selected public artwork
Solar Canopy (1986)
Close-up of Solar Canopy (1986)
Solar Canopy is an
aluminum sculpture made by Gilliam in 1986. It is a large 34'x 12'x 6" feet painted sculpture located at
York College, City University of New York's Academic Core Lounge on the third floor across a huge open window. It is suspended from the ceiling at 60 ft (18 m) high. The artwork is made up of painted geometric shapes with many vibrant colors, some having a solid color while others have a
tie-dye effect painted on them. The artwork is connected together in a
horizontaldiagonal with a
circular shape in the middle. The circular middle is red on the outside and underneath is painted with many different colors in a tie-dye effect. It also has small blocks under it painted in solid colors of red, orange, blue, and yellow. Attached to some of the small blocks are
Jamaica Center Station Riders, Blue (1991)
Located at the
Jamaica Center train station (E,J,Z) Jamaica Center Station Riders, Blue is a large aluminum sculpture mounted high outside on a wall above one of the entrances. The
Metropolitan Transportation AuthorityArts for Transit project commissioned the work in 1991. It is made up of geometric shapes painted in solid
primary colors (red, yellow, blue). The shape of the overall sculpture is circular, with the outer part being blue while the inner parts are red and yellow. In the artist's words, the work "calls to mind movement, circuits, speed, technology, and passenger ships...the colors used in the piece... refer to colors of the respective subway lines. The predominant use of blue provides one with a visual solid in a transitional area that is near subterranean."
The first major American museum retrospective of Gilliam's work in nearly two decades was scheduled to open in 2020 at the
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., but was rescheduled to 2022 due to the
COVID-19 lockdowns. The show, Sam Gilliam: Full Circle, opened in May 2022 as an exhibition of works the artist had produced almost exclusively during the
COVID-19 pandemic, instead of a broader retrospective as originally planned. Full Circle was Gilliam's final show during his lifetime, opening one month before his death.
The first posthumous solo exhibition of Gilliam's work, Late Paintings, opened at Pace's
London gallery in October 2022. Late Paintings was the final show Gilliam had planned during his life and was his first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom.
ab"SAM GILLIAM Medal of Arts 2015". Art in Embassies. U.S. Department of State. Retrieved June 29, 2022. Sam Gilliam was awarded the Medal of Art for his longtime contributions to Art in Embassies and cultural diplomacy on January 21, 2015. ... In 1951, Gilliam graduated from Central High School in Louisville.
^Beardsley, John (1989). Sam Gilliam: Recent Paintings November 15 – December 16, 1989. Ingalls Library clipping file, The Cleveland Museum of Art: Barbara Fendrick Gallery. pp. n.p. (exhibition booklet without pages).