Sam Gilliam

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Sam Gilliam
Sam Gilliam speaking at AU Katzen Center, 2018
Sam Gilliam speaking at AU Katzen Arts Center, 2018
Born (1933-11-30) November 30, 1933 (age 85)
Alma materUniversity of Louisville
MovementWashington Color School

Sam Gilliam (/ˈɡɪliəm/ GHIL-ee-əm; born November 30, 1933) is a color field painter and lyrical abstractionist artist. Gilliam, an African American, is associated with the Washington Color School,[1] 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.[2] He works on stretched, draped and wrapped canvas, and adds sculptural 3D elements. He is 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.[3]

In his more recent work, Gilliam has worked with polypropylene, computer-generated imaging, metallic and iridescent acrylics, handmade paper, aluminum, steel, plywood, and plastic.[4]


Sam Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, the seventh of eight children born to Sam and Estery Gilliam.[5] The Gilliams moved to Louisville, Kentucky shortly after he was born. His father worked on the railroad; his mother cared for the large family. At a young age, Gilliam wanted to be a cartoonist and spent most of his time drawing.[6] In 1951, Gilliam graduated from Central High School in Louisville. After high school, Gilliam attended the University of Louisville and received his B.A. degree in fine art in 1955. In the same year he held his first solo art exhibition at the University. From 1956 to 1958 Gilliam served in the United States Army. He returned to the University of Louisville in 1961 and, as a student of Charles Crodel,[7] received his M.A. degree in painting.[8] He has taught at the Corcoran School of Art, the Maryland Institute College of Art and Carnegie Mellon University.[9] Gilliam also taught art in public schools.[10] In 1962, Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C. after marrying Washington Post reporter Dorothy Butler,[11] whom he later divorced.[12] Gilliam currently lives in Washington, D.C. with his long-term partner Annie Gawlak.[6]

Career in the 1960s, early 1970s[edit]

In the 1960s, as the political and social front of America began to explode in all directions, Gilliam began to take bold declarative initiatives, making definitive imagery[clarification needed], 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."[13] 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.[14]

In 1972, Gilliam represented the US at the Venice Biennale, the first African-American artist to do so.[5] In 2017, he exhibited at the Venice Biennale once again, in the Giardini's central pavillion.[15]

Gilliam was influenced by German Expressionists such as Emil Nolde, Paul Klee, and the American Bay Area Figurative School artist Nathan Oliveira. Early influences included Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. He says that he found lots of clues about how to go about his work from Tatlin, Frank Stella, Hans Hofmann, Georges Braque, 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.[5] His drape paintings were suspended from ceilings or arranged on walls or floors, representing a sculptural third dimension in painting. Gilliam says that his paintings are based on the fact that the framework of the painting is in real space. He is attracted to its power and the way it functions. Gilliam's draped canvases change in each environment where they are arranged and frequently he embellishes the works with metal, rocks, and wooden beams.[16]

Career in the 1970s and 1980s[edit]

In 1975, Gilliam veered away from the draped canvases, and became influenced by jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane.[17] He started producing dynamic geometric collages, which he called "Black Paintings" because they are painted in shades of black.[11] In the 1980s Gilliam's style changed dramatically once more, transitioning to quilted paintings reminiscent of African patchwork quilts from his childhood, using an improvisational approach.[18]

His most recent works are textured paintings that incorporate metal forms.


Gilliam has had many commissions, grants, awards, exhibitions and honorary doctorates. A major retrospective of his work was held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2005.[19] He was named the 2006 University of Louisville Alumnus of the Year.[9]

Other honors include eight honorary doctorates, and the Kentucky Governor’s Award in the Arts. He has received several 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.[9]

In 1987 he 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.[20] In early 2009, he again donated his talents to the Smithsonian Associates to produce a 90-color serigraph entitled Museum Moment, which he describes as "a celebration of art".[21]

In April 2003, a dedication of the installation of his work, Matrix Red-Matrix Blue, was held at Rutgers Law School, Newark.[22]

In May 2011, his work From a Model to a Rainbow was installed in the Washington Metro Underpass at 4th and Cedar, NW.[23]

In 2016, Gilliam was commissioned to produce a piece as part of the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).[24]

Sam Gilliam participated in the 2017 Venice Biennale, Viva Arte Viva, May 13–November 16, 2017.[25]

In 2018, his work was exhibited at Art|Basel.[26] An exhibition at Dia:Beacon is planned for August 2019.

Selected artwork[edit]

Solar Canopy, 1986[27]

Picture of Gilliam's Solar Canopy, 1986

An aluminum sculpture made by color field artist Sam 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 horizontal diagonal 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 triangular blocks.

Close-up of Solar Canopy

Jamaica Center Station Riders, Blue, 1991

Picture of Jamaica Center Station Riders, Blue

Located at the Jamaica Center train station (E,J,Z) is a large aluminum sculpture mounted high outside on a wall above one of the entrances.[28] The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Arts 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."[29]

Personal life[edit]

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, Melissa, and Leah) and also have three grandchildren. After the divorce he met Annie Gawlak, owner of the G Fine Art gallery in Washington DC, who is now Gilliam's longtime partner.[30] In the 1960s, Gilliam was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed lithium, which badly damaged his kidneys. He stopped taking the medication and changed his diet by cutting out red meats and eating fruits and nuts. Gilliam lives in Washington D.C. but in 2010 sold his studio on 14th Street, NW, just north of Colorado Avenue for $3.85 million.

Selected museum collections[edit]

Gilliam's work is part of the permanent collections of 56 museums including:[9]


  1. ^ Cohen, Jean Lawlor; Cohen, Jean Lawlor (2015-06-26). "When the Washington Color School earned its stripes on the national stage". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  2. ^ "Washington Color School Movement Overview". The Art Story. Retrieved 2019-02-16.
  3. ^ "Colorscope: Abstract Painting 1960-1979". Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Retrieved September 15, 2014.
  4. ^ "Sam Gilliam - Google Arts & Culture". Google Cultural Institute. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  5. ^ a b c Kinsella, Eileen (2 January 2018). "At Age 84, Living Legend Sam Gilliam Is Enjoying His Greatest Renaissance Yet". Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  6. ^ a b "Beer with a Painter: Sam Gilliam". Hyperallergic. 2016-03-19. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Sam Gilliam Jr., A Study of Different Uses of Solid Forms in Painting, A Thesis Submitted to the Graduate School of the University of Louisville, 1961.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Sam Gilliam". Retrieved July 22, 2018.
  10. ^ "Sam Gilliam - Biography". Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  11. ^ a b "Sam Gilliam". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved 2018-08-30.
  12. ^ "The not-so-simple comeback story of pioneering artist Sam Gilliam". Washington Post. Retrieved 2018-08-30.
  13. ^ Russell, John (1983). "Art". The New York Times.
  14. ^ "Sam Gilliam facts, information, pictures | articles about Sam Gilliam". Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  15. ^ Campbell, Andrianna (July 11, 2017). "Sam Gilliam". Artforum International. Retrieved January 21, 2019.
  16. ^ Tate. "'Simmering', Sam Gilliam, 1970 | Tate". Tate. Retrieved 2018-08-30.
  17. ^ "Sam Gilliam - Biography". Retrieved 2019-03-10.
  18. ^ 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).
  19. ^ Sam Gilliam : a retrospective catalogue. OCLC 835849576.
  20. ^ "In Celebration, 1987 by Sam Gilliam". The Smithsonian Associates. Retrieved 2013-08-09.
  21. ^ "Museum Moment, 2009 by Sam Gilliam". The Smithsonian Associates. Retrieved 2013-08-09.
  22. ^ "Rutgers Law School News" (PDF). Rutgers Law School. 2003-04-01. Retrieved 2017-07-11.
  23. ^ "Norton to Recognize World Renowned Artist Sam Gilliam During Metro Dedication Ceremony, Saturday". Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. 2011-06-10. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  24. ^ Sargent, Antwaun (2016-09-22). "The Smithsonian's New African-American Museum Gives a Powerful Portrait of Black Experience". Artsy. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  25. ^ "La Biennale di Venezia - Artists". Archived from the original on 2017-06-29. Retrieved 2017-02-22.
  26. ^ Basel, Art. "Sam Gilliam: A life beyond the frame | Art Basel". Art Basel. Retrieved 2018-08-30.
  27. ^ "Sam Gilliam, Solar Canopy, 1986", Unforgotten Masterpieces.
  28. ^ "CultureNOW - Jamaica Center Station Riders, Blue: Sam Gilliam and MTA Arts & Design". Retrieved 2017-12-26.
  29. ^ "Jamaica Center-Parsons-Archer | Sam Gilliam", MTA Arts & Design, MTA.
  30. ^ Capps, Kriston (March 27, 2015). "Return to Splendor". Washington City Paper. Washington DC. Retrieved March 27, 2016.
  31. ^ a b "At Age 84, Living Legend Sam Gilliam Is Enjoying His Greatest Renaissance Yet". Retrieved July 22, 2018.
  32. ^ "Collections en ligne". Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  33. ^ "Search the Collection". MFAH. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  34. ^ "Collection search results: Gilliam, Sam". National Gallery of Art, Collection. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  35. ^ "Sam Gilliam - Works by This Artist". SAAM. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  36. ^ Tate. "Sam Gilliam born 1933". Tate. Retrieved 2019-03-08.


External links[edit]