Sam Gilliam (b. 1933 Tupelo, MS) is an important American artist best known as a Color Field painter who drapes and suspends his canvases, although his most recent work has expanded to include paper, aluminum, steel, plywood, and plastic. In 1972, he was the first African American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.
Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. He started painting in elementary school and furthered his art education at the University of Louisville, graduating with a BFA in 1955. That same year, he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Louisville and had his first solo exhibition on campus. He served in the United States Army from 1956 to 1958 and, once he returned to Louisville, he completed his MFA in 1961. Following his arts education, he briefly taught art at Louisville public schools before he moved to Washington, DC and became involved in the Washington Color School, alongside artists Sam Francis, Gene Davis, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring, Hilda Thorpe, Thomas “Tom” Downing, and Paul Reed.
The Washington Color school developed non-representational, simplified, brightly colored works during the 1960s, and Gilliam began to create clean-edged paintings with areas of color using this style. He then developed work with abstractions of diagonal stripes on square fields. At the same time, he started experimenting with pouring colors onto canvases that were folded and taped, resulting in stains and imprints that were vertical, angular, and axial. He became the first painter to develop the idea of an unsupported canvas in 1965, and this would later develop into his famous color-stained canvases that were draped or suspended in the late 1970s and early 1970s, bringing dimensionality and a sculptural quality to painting.
In 1975, Gilliam stopped producing these draped canvases and instead focused on geometric collages influenced by musicians. He has continued to innovate since then, variously working with multi-layered acrylic paint, enamel, gels, nylon, awning materials, and quilt-like pattering. His most recent works are textured paintings that utilize metal forms.
For decades, Gilliam has also experimented with printmaking and continuing his interest in multilayered, colorful forms in this medium. In 1990 in collaboration Tandem Press, he produced one of the longest prints ever made – the 1,500-yard Fireflies and Ferris wheels. In 2009, the Smithsonian Associates program commissioned Gilliam to create a screenprint in 90 colors, inspired by his first Smithsonian commission completed in 1987.
Gilliam’s work has been the subject of major exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC and the Phillips Collection, Washington DC. His work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and Tate Modern, London.