Sam Gilliam is a leading African American 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 cites the Marvel comics he read as a child as early influences. Later the artist would find 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.
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. 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 continues to innovate and explore new ideas. He produces 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 creates 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.'
Sam Gilliam's paintings and sculptures can be found in galleries around the world and major public collections such as Tate, London; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark.
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).
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 | 2020
See eight of the most collectible art works made during a hard but historic year.
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