Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, Sam Gilliam was a major innovator of post-war American painting who, as David Kordansky Gallery described it, “elaborated upon and disrupted the ethos of Color School painting.” Gilliam is perhaps best known today for his draped paintings, an unprecedented formal pivot that he made in the mid-1960s. These twisting lengths of stretcher-less canvas completely dispensed with the traditional framed picture plane, instead proposing abstract painting as a sculptural endeavor.
One of eight siblings, Gilliam was passionate about drawing and cartooning from a young age. Gilliam attended the University of Louisville, where, in 1955, he received his bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts as part of the school’s second class of Black undergraduate students. After two years of military service from 1956 to 1958, Gilliam returned to the university and earned Master’s degree in Fine Arts in 1961.
Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C. in 1962 following his marriage to Dorothy Butler, a Louisville native who was the first African American woman to be hired as a reporter with the Washington Post. It was here that he made the first color-stained, stretcher-less works that would become his most famous works. As his reputation grew, Gilliam maintained solidarity with the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, boycotting the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971 in support of a protest spearheaded by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. A year later, he became the first African American artist to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale.
Shortly after completing one of his most monumental draped works – Seahorses at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – in 1975, Gilliam moved away from this style of working, choosing to pursue other forms with influences that included the improvisational approach of jazz music and African patchwork quilting. Today, Gilliam’s works are included in numerous institutional collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Tate Modern, London, and the Art Institute of Chicago.**
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