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Sam Gilliam (American, b.b. 1933)


Also known as:  Gilliam, Sam, Jr.

Birth Place: Tupelo (Lee county, Mississippi, United States)

Sam Gilliam is internationally renowned and the most important contemporary Color Field painter still working today. Not ever content to rest on old ideas, Gilliam has continually pushed throughout his artistic career, forging new territory with a constant exploration and reexamination of forms and colors. Above all else, his work is at the forefront of politics, culture, and the African-American experience.

Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi on November 30, 1933. The seventh of eight children, his family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where Gilliam spent all of his childhood and much of his young adult life. He graduated from the University of Louisville with a degree in fine art, then enrolled in the U.S. Army from 1956 to 1958. He returned to Louisville after his discharge, eventually completing an MFA in fine art from his alma mater in 1961.

Initially a school teacher, 1962 was a year of change for Gilliam. He would marry Dorothy Butler, move to Washington D.C. and begin his life’s work, inspired by Washington Color School artists’ Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Abandoning the techniques of abstract expressionists of the time, Gilliam would pour paint directly onto unprimed canvas, folding and draping the canvas for dramatic visual effect.

In 1965, after seeing women hanging laundry outside his studio, Gilliam experimented with the idea of the unsupported canvas. This improvisational technique soon influenced many of the artists of the time, earning him the title, “father of the draped canvas.” This method allowed for greater freedom, a third dimension in painting previously only possible through sculpture. Often suspended from ceilings or piled on the floor, Gilliam would augment these works with mixed media -- metal, rocks, and even wooden beams. The Draped series would prove to be a huge success, allowing Gilliam greater resources for even more ambitious projects. The culmination being Seahorses (1975), which used hundreds of feet of paint-stained canvas for the exterior walls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Never content to sit still, Gilliam discontinued producing draped canvases in 1975, at the height of their popularity. Instead, he created a series of colorful geometric collages influenced by experimental jazz of the time. The rest of the 70’s saw Gilliam move into his Black Paintings series (1977-1979), another group of collages, but this time utilizing only black hues.

In the 1980s, Gilliam experimented with form and paint, this time in a series of “quilted” paintings. Made up of canvas covered in thick layers of acrylic paint and gel, Gilliam would cut geometric shapes and rearrange them on nylon or canvas backgrounds. Inspired by the African American patchwork quilts of his childhood, these paintings are highly colorful, intense, and evocative.

Well into his 80s, Gilliam continues to produce new series to this day. He is the recipient of two NEA awards, a Guggenheim fellowship, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Louisville. He continues to teach and conduct workshops, working as an advocate for his art and for social justice. Like the artist himself, a Gilliam piece is always thought-provoking, experimental, and one-of-a-kind.

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