American artist Sam Gilliam passed away Saturday, June 25, 2022. He expressed visibility and agency in alternative ways, challenging the role of Black history as a requirement in Black art. As an artist he devoted his life to creating paintings that refrained from recognizable images and overt political messages preferred by many of his colleagues.
Born in Tupelo Mississippi in 1933, Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C. after earning a B.A. in Creative Art (1955) and a Master of Fine Arts (1961) from the University of Louisville.
Gilliam established himself at the forefront of American abstraction while working as one of the leading instructors of D.C’s Washington Color School, a distinguished group of color field painters. He was often inspired by jazz music, such as the scores of John Coltrane and constructed lyrical abstractions that took on a variety of forms, moods, and materials.
As an African American artist in the nation’s capital at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Sam Gilliam’s work reached beyond aesthetics, redefining art’s role during a pivotal period of social and societal change. His experiments with paint application were seen as a radical transformation in early contemporary art, profoundly expanding possibilities for the future of abstract painting.
In the 1960s, when African American artists were expected to create figurative work explicitly addressing racial subject matter, Gilliam focused on the development of a new formal language that celebrated the cultivation and expression of the individual voice.
Gilliam’s earliest solo exhibitions at the Jefferson Place Gallery in Washington, D.C between 1965 and 1973, were a precursor for a number of exhibitions at museums and galleries across the nation, including the Howard University Gallery of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Hamilton Gallery of Contemporary Art, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Zora Neale Hurston Museum of Fine Arts, Seattle Art Museum, Hirshhorn Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York
Gilliam’s work and legacy lives on in the collections of several major art institutions around the world, including Tate Modern in London, the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas and the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Best known for his brilliantly stained drape paintings, Gilliam transformed his medium into three-dimensional forms before any predecessors of his generation. Often criticized for not depicting humans in his work, he suspended unstretched canvases from the ceiling or gathered it in curves and loops like the work on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum titled Half Circle Red.
Half Circle Red is an example of Sam Gilliam’s signature technique of pouring paint directly onto a canvas. He then balled and tied up the canvas letting it dry creating a bold, vibrant surface. Later, he uncrumpled the canvas and cut it into shapes that he combined on the wall without a frame. This work, now on view at SLAM, is supported by a series of push pins. Consequently, his organically constructed painting drapes, with small gaps, and bulges emphasizing the true test of time the properties of his materials possess.
“I gotta leave something here that’s a lot better than I found it. You leave something of value, you have to create some hope. I’m good at that.” said Sam Gilliam in a 2018 interview for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.
The St. Louis-born Ronald Ollie, who died in 2020, collected works by Gilliam and other African American abstract artists. Ollie and his wife, Monique McRipley Ollie, gave SLAM the Thelma and Bert Ollie Memorial Collection, which includes several treasured works by Sam Gilliam dating as early as 1993, including Half Circle Red.
Those wishing to remember Sam Gilliam’s local contribution are encouraged to visit the Saint Louis Art Museum to view his artwork, Half Circe Red currently on view in gallery 258. You can also view the Museum’s 2022 Juneteenth Celebration; a virtual talk Art Speaks: But You See Me, available on SLAM’s YouTube channel and the Romare Bearden Takeover, available on Instagram.
Gilliam is survived by his second wife, Annie Gawlak; three daughters from his first marriage, Stephanie, Melissa and Leah; three grandchildren; and three sisters, Lizzie Jane, Lillie and Clenteria.
Sam Gilliam was committed to dismissing the pressure to make popular work by producing art that commanded presence as a way to contribute to the legacy of art history instead of reiterating the fractured narratives of America.
Shaka Myrick is the Romare Bearden Graduate Museum Fellow, Saint Louis Art Museum, 2021- 2023
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