Sam Gilliam’s spontaneous and improvisational techniques, particularly his pouring of vivid pigment on to unstretched, draped canvas, make him one of the foremost artists to emerge from the Washington art scene. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, Gilliam spent his youth in Louisville, Kentucky. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Louisville in 1955, he served in the Army (1956-1958), then returned to the University for his Master of Arts degree (1961). In 1962 he moved to Washington, D.C.
Following an early figurative period, Gilliam began painting in an abstract idiom. In 1968, he affirmed his place among the American avant-garde with the creation of his draped works. Between 1965 and 1973 Gilliam exhibited at the Jefferson Place Gallery, where Marjorie Phillips saw Red Petals in 1967 and decided to host a show of his work at The Phillips Collection. This was his first one-person museum exhibition. Gilliam has shown at various Washington galleries and taught art in the Washington public school system, the Corcoran School of Art, the Maryland Art Institute in Baltimore, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He has received a number of awards, including National Endowment for the Arts Activities Grants in 1967, 1973–1975, and 1989, and a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1971, which gave him the financial independence necessary to paint full-time. Gilliam lives and works in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of the Phillips Collection
Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 1973, Mixed media on paper, 21" x 20 3/8". Placed in a private collection.
March 27, 2015
By; Kriston Capps
Maybe you’ve heard of Sam Gilliam. Maybe you’ve seen his work, but it’s been a while. Right now, the art world is rediscovering the painter for the first or second or maybe third time.
Once again, the moment is just right. It’s been 10 years since his major retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Twenty years since he showed at a project space run by the Whitney Museum of American Art, a museum he once boycotted.
Thirty years since his first solo shows at the Corcoran and the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Forty years since he made the cover of Art in America.
Fifty years since his first show at the Phillips Collection.
But it’s been just two years since Rashid Johnson, the post-black conceptualist photographer and rising New York art star, curated an exhibit of Gilliam’s early work at a prominent Los Angeles space, David Kordansky Gallery. The show drew admiring writeups in W, Vogue, and the Wall Street Journal. Then, last year, Kordansky devoted the gallery’s entire booth at the Frieze New York art fair to showing Gilliam’s work. Over this short span, a hot second in Gilliam’s career, the price of his paintings has doubled.
This is to say nothing of the National Medal of Arts he received in January. Secretary of State John Kerry presided over the ceremony, which also honored Maya Lin, Kehinde Wiley, and other titans of culture. Gilliam received a Lifetime Achievement Award, the first ever bestowed by the program, for showing his work in embassies and diplomatic outposts in more than 20 countries.
No, Robert Colescott was not the first black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. That was Sam Gilliam.