Sam Gilliam was a leading abstractionist, and a key figure of American post-war painting. As an innovator within the Washington Colour School, Sam Gilliam's art pushed the boundaries of colour field abstraction. Recent works in various media continue to blur the lines between painting and sculpture.Read More
Born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi, Gilliam studied at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, graduating with a BA in 1955 and an MFA in 1961. He cited the Marvel comics he read as a child as early influences. Later the artist found inspiration in the painting style of Italian masters like Giotto and Tintoretto.
Moving to Washington, D.C. in 1962 Gilliam encountered Washington Colour School artists like Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. He took on and expanded the Washington Colour School approach to abstraction, pouring thinned paint onto unprimed canvases—a reaction itself against Abstract Expressionism's thick expressive brushstrokes.
Best known for his Drape paintings that break free of the frame and float freely, Sam Gilliam has been described as an 'architect of colour' making almost sculptural abstract paintings that celebrate colour.
Gilliam's early expansion of the methods he encountered is exemplified in Light Fan (1966), in which as the poured acrylic paint was apparently still wet and bleeding into the raw canvas the artist folded the painting to create a space-defining diagonal line amidst the multi-coloured washes. The artist would later describe the work as a 'springboard to real sculpture, to real sculptured painting.'
From this approach evolved Sam Gilliam's drape paintings: unstretched pieces of painted cloth artfully folded and suspended while wet from walls and ceilings. The works 'broke free of the stretcher and floated like jellyfish' as Ocula Magazine's Sam Gaskin describes in the artist's 2022 obituary.
These works have ranged in scale from smaller gallery pieces like Swing Sketch (1968) and Untitled (2011) to large-scale installations like Seahorses (1975), which consisted of three canvases draped in V shapes along the outer wall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Not beholden to any one approach, Gilliam continued to innovate and explore new ideas. He produced works across the spectrum of dimensionality, from abstract painted sculpture compositions like A and the Kitty (1998) to arrangements of flat, two-dimensional planes of colour such as Homage to the Square (2016–2017).
Sam Gilliam's artworks vary in medium as much as in form. He created paintings, collages, and sculptures from paint, canvas, plastic, wood, metal, and a range of other materials. In an interview with Christian Lund in Sam Gilliam's studio, the artist said of this drive toward variety, 'that's what I'm here for. ... that's what art is supposed to do; it's supposed to change.'
One of the last series the artist worked on before passing away in 2022, Sam Gilliam's 'Rake Paintings' (2021) mostly appear white from a distance but upon closer look consist of patterns of multi-coloured scratches. To create the effect, Gilliam built layer upon layer of acrylic interspersed occasionally with materials like sawdust and tin shot. He then dragged a garden rake the canvas to swirl the surface and also make deep impressions pulling under-colours from below. These works were the subject of the artists first solo exhibition in Asia.
Although the art world has been slow to recognise the contributions of Gilliam and fellow American Black Avant-gardists, the artist received a number of awards later in life. Alongside multiple honorary doctorates, and a Guggenheim foundation fellowship, Gilliam received the Mississippi Governor's Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts in 2007, the U.S. State Department Medal of Arts in 2015, and Archives of American Art Medal in 2018.
In 2021 Sam Gilliam received a Distinguished Honour Award during Washington D.C.'s 36th Annual Mayor's Arts Awards. The award is given to those who have made substantial contributions to arts and culture in the District of Columbia over 20 years or more.
Sam Gilliam has been the subject of both solo and group exhibitions internationally.
Solo exhibitions include Sam Gilliam: Full Circle, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D. C. (2022); Sam Gilliam, Dia Beacon, New York (2019); The Music of Color: Sam Gilliam, 1967—1973, Kunstmuseum Basel (2018); Sam Gilliam: a retrospective, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (2005); Golden Element Inside Gold, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1993); Red & Black to "D": Paintings by Sam Gilliam, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (1982); Sam Gilliam, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1971).
Group exhibitions include Allied with Power, Pérez Art Museum Miami (2020); With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972–1985, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2019); Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London (2017); African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. (2012); The Shape of Colour: Excursions in Colour Field Art 1950–2005, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (2005).
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2022