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.