Sam Gilliam

Begun in 1960s Washington, D.C., Sam Gilliam’s abstract canvases are among the most vibrant and radical in 20th-century art. He is best known for his ‘drape paintings’. They hang like sails or curtains in space, free of stretcher or frame, and bloom with vivid colour.

Gilliam’s stretched canvases, often fashioned with bevelled edges, are equally compelling. To make them, he would soak colours into a raw canvas, pleat and crush the still-wet fabric back and forth on itself, then leave it to dry overnight. As it was unfolded, the composition was revealed for the first time.

Gilliam is associated with Washington Colour School artists such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. Following the example of Helen Frankenthaler, these painters also stained dilute pigments into unprimed canvas. Gilliam’s formal innovations, however, took colour in a revolutionary new direction.

The artist was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933, and moved to Washington in 1962 after studying at the University of Louisville. He spent his first years in Washington working as a high-school art teacher, developing his own practice during the weekends.

At a time defined by social upheaval and the Civil Rights movement, abstract art was widely held to have little relevance to the African-American experience. Gilliam was undeterred, and uninterested in his work being defined by race. In 1972, he became the first African-American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.

Gilliam’s approach to painting as a material in space was unique. While Minimalists like Donald Judd were seeking to create austere, non-expressive objects that hybridised painting and sculpture, he blurred these boundaries with painterly, improvisatory exuberance. His drape paintings hang differently every time they are installed, creating ever-changing environments of folding, cascading colour.

The 2010s saw a wave of fresh recognition for Gilliam. Museums made major new acquisitions of his work. He held acclaimed solo exhibitions at Dia Beacon, New York and the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., and received his first European retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Basel in 2018.

That same year, Gilliam’s 1971 canvas Lady Day II set a new auction record when it sold for over $2 million at Christie’s New York. Its title, as with many of his works, reflected his abiding love of jazz music. Gilliam died in Washington in 2022.

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

Lady Day II

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

Dancing Scene

SAM GILLIAM (NÉ EN 1933)

Great River Run I

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

Stage Middle

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

More Than Water (Assissi) Subtle Jungle

Sam Gilliam (B. 1933)

Ribboned II

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

Flowering Plum

SAM GILLIAM (1933-2022)

All Kinds of Sires

SAM GILLIAM (1933-2022)

Like Celadon and Other Color Rhythms

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

To a Primitive State

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

Blue Village II

Sam Gilliam (B. 1933)

L.G.B. Engine

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

Jazz Real #1

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

Composition with a Rare Blue

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

Coolness is Born

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

Adolph Queequeq Slumber

SAM GILLIAM (1933-2022)

For the Fog #23

SAM GILLIAM (B. 1933)

For the Fog #24

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

Composition for Brown Bag

Sam Gilliam (B. 1933)

Roller Skating Scatter Bean

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)

Roll Giverny signed 'Sam Gilliam' (on the stretcher) acrylic, chicken wire, twine, wood, nails, handmade paper and fabric 39¾ x 27½ in. (101 x 69.9 cm.) Executed in 1978. Roll Giverny signed, inscribed and dated 'Sam Gilliam '78 Part II' (on the reverse) acrylic, watercolor, nails, metal wire, string, handmade paper and fabric 39¾ x 27½ in. (101 x 69.9 cm.) Executed in 1978. (2)