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Sam Gilliam Jr

 (born 1933)
Sam Gilliam, Jr. is active/lives in District Of Columbia, Kentucky.  Sam Gilliam is known for abstract color field painting, collage, graphics.

Sam Gilliam, Jr.

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Sam Gilliam, Jr.
Abstract Color Field* painter Sam Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933, growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, where he received an MA in painting at the University of Louisville in 1961. He received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters at the University of Louisville in 1980 and Northwestern University in 1990.

Gilliam came to Washington, D.C. in 1962 to join the second generation of Washington Color Painters*.  Like the first generation of the group, which included Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, Gilliam has an interest in the qualities of color, applying acrylic* to unprimed canvas.

From the mid-1960s, acrylics were poured over the canvases to create abstractions. Later canvases were without frames, and some canvases were even folded in 1968. Gilliam's bold colors on draped canvases are sometimes displayed as environmental pieces or wall pieces.  He has made collages* as well as paintings.

It has been nearly five years since Sam Gilliam had a one-person exhibition in New York, over seventeen years since his work was seen in the City in any depth.   He had a show at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1982. It has been a time of transformation for the artist, a time when a direction that was implicit in his work for some time has found explicit expression.  Gilham's paintings have always strained against their boundaries, their edges and their surfaces.  Lately, they have exploded forcefully and effectively into three dimensions.

Gilliam's present work has its origins in paintings he made in the early 1980's. He was then literally raking huge quantities of acrylic paint and gel across a large canvas, then cutting the canvas into fairly regular geometric shapes; triangles and rectangles, wedges and arcs, and stitching the parts together in an improvisational way almost like a crazy quilt.  While the resulting compositions were in fact quite flat, their colliding geometries and their vibrant colors made the surfaces seem to pulsate and jump.

Then Gilliam started to pun on this effect.  He began attaching enameled aluminum elements to the edges of his paintings -- actual three-dimensional forms that were small at first in simple geometric shapes, then larger and more complicated. For the most part, the surfaces of these projecting elements were smooth, making them -- paradoxically -- seem flatter than the painted surfaces to which they were attached.

In 1990 Gilliam had occasion to execute a number of actual sculptures; some of them against a wall, as in the Davis Square Subway Station in Boston, some of them suspended in space, like the Library of the University of Louisville.  Using the same geometric shapes as in the paintings and combining them in the same way, Gilliam brought these sculptures to the brink of chaos by building them out dramatically into space, using color sometimes poured onto the surface to intensify the three-dimensional effect.

Gilliam's 1990s works marry the sculpture to the painting.  They combine shaped canvases, no longer quilted, but still patterned with raked masses of acrylic and gel, with cut-out aluminum elements, circles, broken circles, and perforated cones that seem to float in front of them.  These projected elements are now heavily painted and textured, bearing the same raked surfaces and the same lush colors as the canvas behind them.  The sculptural elements are thereby brought under some measure of control, and made to cohere with the painted surface.  They are also dispersed across the painting rather than clustered at the edge or in the center as in many of Gilliam's previous works.  This reinforces the coherence Gilliam achieves through chromatic and textural consistency.

Thus much has changed in Gilliam's work; but much has stayed the same. Within a somewhat more controlled idiom, his paintings still achieve that tense equilibrium between the regularizing influence of geometry and the explosive power of color and texture. There is something in Gilliam that loves a struggle and, here, as often in the best of his work, it lies in the effort to reconcile a cool intellectual structure with a richly expressive manipulation of paint.

Gilliam received a Guggenheim Fellowship* and the Norman Walt Harris Prize from the Art Institute of Chicago.  His work is in the collections of the Museum of African Art and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.  He has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Other major exhibitions include:
Gilliam/Krebs/McGowin, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969
Gilliam/Edwards/Williams: Extensions, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, 1974
Modern Painters at the Corcoran: Sam Gilliam, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1983
African American Art from the Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 1990
Golden Windows Inside Gold, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1993-1995
Forty-Fourth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Les Krantz, American Artists, Illustrated Survey of Leading Contemporary Artists

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary:

Biography from
Sam Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi and was the seventh of eight children to Sam and Estery Gilliam.  The Gilliams moved to Louisville, Kentucky shortly after Sam was born.  His father worked on the railroad, and his mother cared for the large family.  Gilliam began painting in elementary school, receiving much encouragement from teachers.  In 1951, Gilliam graduated from Central High School in Louisville. Gilliam served in the United States Army from 1956 to 1958.

He received his Bachelor and Masters degree of Fine Arts at the University of Louisville.  In 1955, Gilliam had his first solo exhibition at the University of Louisville.  He initially taught art for a year in the Louisville public schools.  In 1962, he married Dorothy Butler, a Louisville native and a well-known journalist. That same year, Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C., where he has lived ever since.Sam Gilliam is an African American Color  Field* painter associated with the Washington Color School*, Abstract Expressionism* and Lyrical Abstraction*. 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 painted canvas hanging without stretcher bars c.1965, a major contribution to the Color Field School.

In 1975, Gilliam veered away from the draped canvases and became influenced by jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane.  He started producing dynamic geometric collages*, which he called "Black Paintings" due to the hue. Again, in the 1980s Gilliam's style changed dramatically to quilted paintings reminiscent of African patchwork quilts from his childhood. His most recent works are textured paintings that incorporate metal forms.  Gilliam's ability to move beyond the draped canvas, coupled with his ability to adopt new series keeps the viewers interested and engaged.  This has assured his prominence in the art world as an exciting and innovative contemporary painter.

Gilliam is also one of the few successful, self-supporting African American artists who views the teaching of art as a mission. His love of teaching developed during the one year he spent in Louisville public schools.  He taught for nearly a decade in the Washington public schools, and then at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, and the University of Maryland, and for several years at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa.  In addition, Gilliam still devotes time to conducting workshops, participating in panels, and delivering lectures in this country and abroad.

Lately, he has worked with polypropylene, computer generated imaging, metallic and iridescent acrylics, hand-made paper, aluminum, steel, and plastic.

Sam Gilliam first rose to prominence in the late 1960's with his "drape paintings," large scale, unstretched canvasses suspended from the wall or cieling, on which the artist had variously soaked, stained, and splattered in luminous layers of bright color.

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

In 1987 he was selected by the Smithsonian Art Collectors Program to produce a print to celebrate the opening of the S. Dylan 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, and the sale of which benefitted the Smithsonian Associates, the continuing education branch of the larger Smithsonian Institution. "In Celebration, 1987 by Sam Gilliam".

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."

He lives in Washington D.C. and has a studio in the historical Shaw neighborhood.

Selected Individual Exhibitions
1956 University of Lousiville,
1963 Frame House Gallery, Lousiville,Kentucky
1964 Adam Morgan Gallery, D.C.
1966 Jefferson Place Gallery, D.C.
1970 Galerie Darthea Speyer, Paris
1971 Museum of Modern Art, New York
1973 Greenburg Gallery, St. Louis
1974 Linda Farris Gallery, D.C.
1975 Philadelphia Museum of Art
1980 Hamilton Gallery, New York
1983 Gallery of Art, D.C.
1986 Alice Simsar Gallery, Ann Arbor, Michigan
1989 Middendorf Gallery, D.C
1992 Smith Anderson Gallery, Palo Alto
1994 Galerie Simmone Stern, New Orleans, LA
1995 Imagio Gallery, Palm Desert, California

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary:

Biography from The Johnson Collection
At a time when Black Nationalism was a topic in both the political and art worlds, Sam Gilliam's paintings were—and continue to be—noticeably void of socio-political iconography and absent of any discernable African aesthetic. Instead, Gilliam has experimented with different methods of painting and display, leading observers to describe him as a second generation Abstract Expressionist or, more specifically, a Color Field painter, and lyrical abstractionist. Though his painting technique is constantly evolving, one aspect is consistent throughout Gilliam's oeuvre: a love of color.

Like so many other abstract painters, Gilliam's earliest creations were figurative. As the seventh of eight children, Gilliam was encouraged to draw by his overwhelmed mother. Horses, the primary form of industrial transportation in his birthplace of Tupelo, Mississippi during the 1930s, were the favored subject of young Sam's sketches. After moving to Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, Gilliam's schoolteachers further encouraged his artistic inclinations. Despite the lack of formal art curriculum, Gilliam was urged to decorate bulletin boards in the hallways and to borrow art and drawing books from the library. This foundation prepared Gilliam to pursue a bachelor's and, later, a master's degree from the newly integrated University of Louisville. From 1956-1958, Gilliam served in the United States Army.

Gilliam began exploring music as a potential component of visual art while still attending the University of Louisville. Like many of his fellow students, Gilliam greatly admired the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He listened to their performances as he painted, gradually introducing jazz's cacophony of sounds into his images through an improvisational method of color application. Having gained some measure of financial independence after being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971, Gilliam's post-graduate work created in Washington, D.C. during the following decade is most exemplary of this technique.

Gilliam's style underwent a significant transition during the 1960s when he abandoned oil for acrylic and moved into complete Color Field abstraction. Inspired by Pollock's dripped and poured paintings, Gilliam adopted a somewhat similar technique and became one of the first artists in the integrated Washington Color School to explore relations between color on large canvas. In 1968, Gilliam introduced his "drape" paintings and, in so doing, established his national reputation as an innovative African American painter. These "drape" paintings consist of acrylic paints poured or dripped onto raw, un-stretched, canvas, which is then elaborately folded. After the paint has partially dried, the canvas is unfolded, revealing layers of dry, wet, and partially adhered colors. Their designation as "drape" paintings derives from the artist's practice of draping the canvas for exhibition, rather than mounting them in the traditional fashion, a three-dimensional innovation that has been celebrated as a significant contribution to the Color Field School.

Sam Gilliam's continued success as an artist can be attributed to his ongoing experimentation with new methods of painting that never fail to intrigue his audience. Though he resides in Washington, D.C., where he teaches for various schools and universities, Gilliam continues to actively support the arts and art education in Kentucky. Not only has he donated several works to the University of Louisville and the Louisville Visual Arts Association to aid in their fundraising efforts, but he also returns to his hometown periodically to participate in various arts and educational events. Gilliam's works have been exhibited at and are held by some of the nation's most significant museums, including the California African American Museum, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and National Gallery of Art.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

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About  Sam Gilliam, Jr.

Born:  1933 - Tupelo, Mississippi
Known for:  abstract color field painting, collage, graphics

Essays referring to
Sam Gilliam, Jr.

Black American Artists