Sam Gilliam

(Tupelo, Mississippi, 1933 - 2022, Washington, D.C., United States)


Sam Gilliam is recognized as a great innovator and an influential figure in postwar American painting. He emerged from the Washington, D.C. scene in the mid 1960s with works that elaborated upon and expanded the growing genre of color field painting.[1]

Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933, the seventh of eight children. The Gilliam family moved to Louisville, Kentucky shortly after he was born. Describing his early interest in art, he recalls that “I wanted to be a cartoonist... All through school, if you finished lessons early, your teacher would let you draw, at an extra table, or in an extra notebook. One of my mother’s friends pointed out that when we played in the front yard, every other child was running around making noise, and I was quiet. I was drawing. She suggested to my mother, ‘If you keep that kid filled with paper, you won’t have any trouble with him.’”[2] He began painting when he was in elementary school and graduated from the University of Louisville in 1955. After serving in the U.S. Army in the late 1950s, he completed his MFA in 1961.[3] He recalled that one professor advised him that he had “too much respect for paint” and thus encouraged him to try less formal painting on paper. This was but one formative moment preparing Gilliam for a long career of material investigation, shaped by daring experimentation but also what the artist describes as “the will to concentrate.”[4]

Gilliam has lived in Washington, DC since 1962. In that city, the abstract painting of the Washington Color School led by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, and Thomas Downing was already flourishing by the early ‘60s. Following a period of figurative painting, Gilliam likewise embraced abstraction and hard-edge geometric designs, and then experimented with expressive pouring. In 1967, The Phillips Collection purchased one of his paintings and hosted his first solo show. While preparing for this exhibition, Gilliam discovered that by creasing, bunching, or crumpling paper still wet with watercolor, he could create an underlying structure for his color combinations, a kind of drawing to shape and guide his compositions. These experiments also informed his approach to printmaking.[5] Gilliam’s adventurous and prolific use of artistic materials soon expanded into his drape paintings, which derived from his work with unsupported canvases. He said the works were partly inspired by watching women hang laundry on clotheslines outside of his studio window in Washington. He also created innovative works that are known as “beveled-edge” or “slice” paintings, whose edges extend off the wall and towards the viewer. Gilliam rapidly garnered further recognition and represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale in 1972; he was the first African American artist to do so. In the 1980s, he began adding multiple layers of thick acrylic paint his canvases. These “quilt” paintings involved cutting geometric shapes from the encrusted surface and rearranging them in patterns reminiscent of the African American patchwork quilts he fondly remembered from his childhood.[6]

Race certainly played a role in Gilliam’s career and his sometimes uneven level of acknowledgement in the art market.[7] In laying out his own narrative, he gives equal weight to childhood play, the circus near his boyhood home, his time in the army, and music alongside racial tension and the Civil Rights movement as it affected Louisville and Washington.[8] Though he did not make figurative or overtly political art, when asked how abstract art can be political Gilliam responded “It messes with you. It convinces you that what you think isn’t all. It challenges you to understand something that is different, that a person can be just as good in difference and sometimes adversity, as opposed to what you believe.” Looking back on a long career that has included ups and down, periods of lesser recognition, and opportunities likely limited by racial difference, Gilliam has wryly observed: “The thing about art is that… sometimes you’re broke! Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But I’ve never lost entirely. Of course, you’ve got to say, ‘You just keep on keepin’ on.’”[9]


[1] Pace Gallery, “Sam Gilliam, “https://www.pacegallery.com/artists/sam-gilliam/.

[2] Jennifer Samet and Sam Gilliam, “Beer with a Painter: Sam Gilliam,” Hyperallergic, 19 March 2016, https://hyperallergic.com/284543/beer-with-a-painter-sam-gilliam/.

[3] Eileen Kinsella, “At Age 84, Living Legend Sam Gilliam Is Enjoying His Greatest Renaissance Yet,” Artnet News, 2 January 2018, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/sam-gilliam-market-renaissance-1182377.

[4] Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, “Abstract Art is Political: Artist Sam Gilliam,” video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciN6ZPDMJV4&vl=en.

[5] The Phillips Collection, “The Phillips Collects: Sam Gilliam,” 24 January 2019, https://blog.phillipscollection.org/2019/01/24/phillips-collects-sam-gilliam/.

[6] Kinsella, “At Age 84, Living Legend Sam Gilliam Is Enjoying His Greatest Renaissance Yet.”

[7] Kinsella, “At Age 84, Living Legend Sam Gilliam Is Enjoying His Greatest Renaissance Yet.”

[8] Jennifer Samet and Sam Gilliam, “Beer with a Painter: Sam Gilliam.”

[9] Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, “Abstract Art is Political: Artist Sam Gilliam.”


--Jeffery Katzin, PhD, Assistant Curator


**June 27, 2022, Update: Sam Gilliam died June 25 at his home in Washington, D.C.. He was 88.

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