Sam Gilliam was an African American color field painter and lyrical abstractionist artist. In the 1950s and 1960s, Gilliam was involved with the Washington Color School, a group of Washington, D.C. area artists that developed a form of abstract art from color field painting. Gilliam took this idea to the extreme, painting on stretched, draped and wrapped canvases which sometimes were large enough to hang on the outside walls of a museum. In some cases, his work would look different each time it was displayed. He sometimes added elements that changed flat paintings into sculptural work.
Gilliam was born in 1933 in Tupelo, Mississippi and his family moved to Kentucky soon after his birth. He wanted to be a cartoonist when he was young. He drew in the dirt until someone noticed, and his mother supplied him with paper and cardboard. He attended the University of Louisville in the second graduating class to admit blacks to its student body. His first solo show was at the University in 1955. After 2 years in the U.S. Army, he returned to Louisville for his Master’s degree and became a high school art teacher so that he could continue with his own artwork. His marriage brought him to Washington, D.C.
While many Black artists chose representational art and whose work was included in exhibitions because of this, Gilliam chose his own path to abstraction. While this art is usually seen as not being based in life, he referenced his own life in his work and considered it political. The draped work, he has said, has its roots in laundry hung out to dry. Gilliam and other artists boycotted a Whitney exhibit in 1971 when no Black art experts were involved in an exhibit about African American art. In 1972 he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale; he was the first Black artist chosen for this honor. He worked into his eighties… when he was 85, an exhibit at Dia Beacon featured his large draped works, some of which were 75 feet long.