Sam Gilliam (1933-2022) became prominent during the 1960s as part of the Washington Color School. Born in Tupelo, MS, and raised in Louisville, KY, Gilliam is best known for his innovative Drape paintings, painted canvases without stretcher bars that were hung from the ceiling or draped along walls. The innovation allowed his work to flow naturally, looping and overlapping free from the architecture of the frame, thereby bridging the gap between painting and sculpture. Gilliam's career has spanned decades and mediums, primarily canvas and mixed media collage.
Gilliam studied painting at the University of Louisville, receiving both undergraduate and graduate degrees, before moving to Washington, DC in 1962. He became an art teacher at McKinley Technical High School, his first of many teaching positions, and began an influential friendship with Color School painter Thomas Downing. Gilliam's career took off in 1969 when he shocked the local art scene with his solo show of Drape paintings. In 1972 he became the first Black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.
Many Black artists of the 60s and 70s were expected to engage in overtly political art, and as an abstract artist Gilliam resisted those expectations. However, although most of his work was not overtly political, he did address current events, such as Martin Luther King, Jr's assassination and the Vietnam War protests, in his painting titles.
Gilliam's later works incorporated expressionistic, vivid marks on layers of aluminum, Japanese paper, or wood veneer, joining them together like puzzle pieces with rivets and thread, and coated with varnish. Gilliam even sewed canvas or paper together, referencing quilting. A highlight of his career is the recent 28-foot commissioned work for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. A solo show of Gilliam's work opened at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2022, the artist's first since his 2005 Corcoran Gallery of Art retrospective.
Gilliam's work is in the collections of the Tate Modern, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; and more.