Sam Gilliam ( November 30, 1933 – June 25, 2022) was an American abstract painter and sculptor. Born in Mississippi and raised in Kentucky, Gilliam spent his entire adult life in Washington, D.C., eventually being described as the “dean” of the city’s arts community.Originally associated with the Washington Color School, a group of Washington-area artists that developed a form of abstract art from color field painting in the 1950s and 1960s, Gilliam began to move beyond the movement’s core aesthetics of flat fields of color when he introduced sculptural elements to his paintings. His work has also been described as lyrical abstraction.
Following his early experiments in color and form, Gilliam became widely known for his draped paintings, which he first developed in the mid-to-late 1960s. These works comprise unstretched painted canvases without stretcher bars, hung or draped like fabric in galleries and outdoor spaces, and Gilliam has been recognized as the first artist to have “freed the canvas” from the stretcher in this way.This innovation has been identified as a major contribution to contemporary art, collapsing the space between painting and sculpture and influencing the development of installation art.Despite becoming a signature style, Gilliam mainly moved on from his draped paintings after the mid-1970s, returning to them primarily for public commissions and several late-career works. In his later work, Gilliam produced art in a range of styles and materials, continuing to experiment with and explore the boundaries between painting, sculpture, and printmaking. Other well-known series of works include his “quilt” paintings from the 1980s, which Gilliam produced by arranging multiple shaped canvases together to resemble the patchwork style of quilts from his childhood, and his extensive series of paintings on canvas with attached painted metal, produced beginning in the 1980s and 1990s.
Although he achieved early critical success, including becoming the first African American artist to represent the United States in an exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1972, Gilliam’s career saw a period of relative decline in attention in the 1980s and 1990s, although he continued to exhibit his work, primarily in Washington. Despite fewer high-profile national and international exhibitions during this period, he was able to sustain his practice in part through public commissions and grant funding. Beginning in the mid-2000s his work began to see renewed critical and institutional attention, and his contributions to contemporary art were reexamined and reevaluated in several notable publications and exhibitions. His late-career milestones included creating a work for permanent display in the lobby of the then-newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016, and exhibiting for a second time at the Venice Biennale in 2017. 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 Rothko and Pollock.”
“I am a better artist today in that I am obviously a better teacher. Whether I am teaching or making art, the process is fundamentally the same: I am creating.”