Gilliam, Sam 1933–
Sam Gilliam 1933–
Sam Gilliam is a globally acknowledged modern Color Field painter most famous for the big, color-splattered canvases he hung from ceilings and walls during the late 1960s and 1970s. Gilliam was at one time associated with the Washington Color School. This was a loose organization of abstract artists who received acknowledgment in the 1950s for stressing what Regenia A. Perry called in Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art, “large, clean-edged paintings with flatly applied areas of color.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, Gilliam is the first of these artists to make unsupported canvases by “’loosening things up,’ shaping his canvases to fit the spaces, whether indoors or outdoors, where they would be hung, unlike traditional paintings. These so-called drape paintings attracted international attention for their innovative use of color.” Observed the Washington Post, “... Sometimes he devises enormous installations—in Thailand, Finland or Korea—in which 1,500 yards of his printed, painted fabrics, draped, gathered and suspended, go swooping through the air.”
Gilliam pointed out that he has joined a group of young and old successful black artists, including Martin Puryear, Mel Edwards, Betye Saar, and Tyrone Mitchell. He himself has received two National Endowment for the Arts awards, fellowships from the Washington Gallery of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Foundation, and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Louisville in 1980. He has pieces in museums across America, including the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Art. He has had one-man and group shows in galleries throughout the country and overseas. His work appeared in the Venice Biennale in the early 1970s. In 1993 his artworks cost between $25,000 and $55,000. He is successful in that his artwork supports him financially. Nonetheless, Gilliam also spends time conducting workshops, taking part in panel discussions, and giving talks in the United States and abroad.
Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, the seventh of eight children of Sam and Estery Gilliam. He grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, after his family relocated there. In The Painter Speaks: Artists Discuss Their
Born Sam Gilliam, November 30, 1933, in Tupelo, MS; son of Sam and Estery C. (Cousins); married Dorothy Butler, in 1962; children: Stephanie, Melissa, Leah. Education: Madison Junior High School, Louisville, KY; U. Louisville, BA., 1955, 1961, LHD (hon.) 1980, Northwestern U. ArtsD (hon.) 1990; numerous DFA (hon.).
Career: painter. Lives and works in Washington, DC, served in United States Army, 1956-58; Instructor of painting, Corcoran Sch. Art, Corcoran Gallery, Washington, 1965-69; Md. Inst. Art, 1969-84; professor of painting, Carnegie Mellon U., Pitts., 1984-89; exhibited numerous one-man shows of paintings, including Univ. Gallery U. Mass, Amherst, 1978, Galerie Darthea Speyer, Paris, France, 1978-91, Whitney Mus., N.Y.C., 1993; numerous group shows, including Dade County Library, Miami, Fla., 1978, Grey Gallery, N.Y.C. 1979, N.J. State Mus., Trenton, 1980; represented in permanent collections among them Nat. Gallery Art, Washington, Mus. Modern Art, N.Y.C., Rockefeller Collection, N.Y.C., Corcoran Gallery Art, Washington, Howard U., Washington, Gallery Modern Art, Washington, Mus. African Art, Washington, Carnegie Inst., Pittsburgh, Baltimore Mus. Art, Art Inst., Chicago, Tate Gallery, London, Eng., Musee d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France, Boymans Mus., Rotterdam, Holland, and others.
Selected awards: Washington Gallery of Modern Art, 1968, Norman B. Harris Prize, Art Institute of Chicago, 1969, Guggenheim Fellowship, 1971, Washington Gallery Modern Art fellow, 1971, National Endowment for the Arts of Individual Artist Grant, 1967,1973,1974, National Endowment for the Arts, 1973-1975, Disting. Alumnus award U. Louisville, 1975, Individual Artists Grant, NEA, 1989.
Addresses: 1900 Quincy Street, NW, Washington, DC 20011.
Experiences and Careers, edited by Joan Jeffri, Gilliam has been quoted as saying that his father was a truck driver and carpenter and his mother had been a school teacher. It was she, he said, who fostered his making art. According to Jeffri’s interview, Gilliam said, “I learned to draw quite early—I made lots of things out of clay, and then I started to paint quite early, about ten years old, just bought some paint and started.” Making art was made easier for him, he said, because his father “left a lot of materials around—hammers, saws, wood.”
Gilliam painted in elementary school. He was encouraged by a fifth-grade art teacher and an art program at Madison Junior High School. “Some of my teachers noticed that I was particularly good at art, and they allowed me to use it at Christmastime, drawing on the boards,” he said in The Painter Speaks. “We had an art corner; I was always there. And then finally, in junior high school, I was able to take special art courses.” After completing Louisville’s Central High School in 1951, he went to the University of Louisville. He finished with a B.A. degree in 1955. In 1955 he also attended graduate school at the University of Louisville, and had his first solo art showing there. His art studies were interrupted by service in the United States Army, from 1956 to 1958. Afterwards, he went back to Louisville and completed his M.F.A. degree at the university in 1961.
He was an art instructor for a year in Louisville’s public schools before marrying Dorothy Butler in 1962, a journalist and Louisville resident. That year he moved to Washington, D.C. He was an art instructor for nearly ten years in Washington’s public schools, and then at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and the University of Maryland, and for some years at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Gilliam, however, never let teaching get in the way of his making art.
Gilliam’s background as an artist took place after the emergence of abstract expressionism, followed by Color Field painting done at the Washington Color School. Here, the “painterly abstractions of the 1950s” gave way to “nonrepresentational, expansive, simplified works of clear bright colors through the 1960s,” according to Regenia Perry in Free Within Ourselves. Other artists of this group included Thomas Downing, whom Gilliam met in 1963 and who familiarized him with color art. Gilliam’s earliest paintings followed the style of Washington Color Field Painting. Wrote Perry, Gilliam explored “taping and pouring colors, folding and staining canvases, and literally folding a still-wet canvas against itself to imprint vertical, angular, and axial forms.”
In the late 1960s Gilliam became the first painter to work with unsupported canvases. After seeing women hanging laundry outside the window of his Washington studio, Gilliam decided not to use a frame or stretcher for his work. Instead he draped and hung large pieces of paint-stained canvases from ceilings, walls, or on floors. The works could be rearranged, and added to with rocks, metal, and wooden beams. They looked like sculptures, which is what Gilliam intended. He received much attention as the “father of the draped canvas” and many commissions for his work. One of his draped series of six canvases, Seahorses, was done for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and hangs formlessly from the outside walls of two adjacent wings of the museum, evoking the drapery of marble on ancient statues of Greek gods.
Gilliam has given credit to both his ambition and the help of friends to helping him gain entrance to galleries such as the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Phillips Collection and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC. He also told Art Journal, “I found lots of clues on how to go about working from Tatlin, Stella, Hofmann, Braque, Picasso, and Cezanne.”
In the early and mid-1970s Gilliam again changed his method of painting. Instead of staining and saturating wet canvases he spattered and built up many layers of thick acrylic paint on them. Then he attacked them with a rake to produce variations in texture. To make other paintings he cut geometric shapes from his encrusted canvas surfaces and arranged them on canvas or nylon backgrounds in models that Regenia A. Perry called in Free Within Ourselves, “reminiscent of African-American patchwork quilts the artist remembered from childhood.”
In the 1970s and early 1980s Gilliam focused on making geometric collages, stretching the middle portion of his canvas and collaging onto it geometric shapes cut from the perimeter. Also in the 1970s, Gilliam was doing collage paintings in mostly black shades. Wrote Jane Addams Allen in Art in America, “Gilliam’s canvases from the ’70s are keyed to a single color, usually white or black, and are quite romantic in their flickering textured surfaces. His most ambitious work from that era, a black painting entitled Coffee Thyme creates an almost mystical atmosphere with its single dark triangle glowing against a slightly luminous rectangle in a sea of deep blues and reds on black.”
About Gilliam’s Wild Goose Chase series Regenia A. Perry stated in Free Within Ourselves, “[The series] includes this two-part ensemble, called Open Cylinder, an example of his ’quilted’ paintings produced during the late 1970s. After cutting geometric shapes from his thickly layered canvases, Gilliam arranged and glued these shapes to a canvas background in random patterns reminiscent of the asymmetrical ’crazy quilts’ made by African American quilters of the Deep South, and the irregular patterns of West African textiles. The geometric areas appear to float and shift across the twodimensional surface, while each of the boldly textured areas complements the adjacent area.”
But not everyone sees African American influences in Gilliam’s work. Gilliam has been criticized for being more Eurocentric than African-American, particularly in the 1970s. “I remember when Stokely Carmichael called a group of us together to tell us of our mission, Gilliam reminisced in the Washington Post. “He said ’You’re black artists! I need you! But you won’t be able to make your pretty pictures anymore. I’ll tell you what to paint.’” Even now students writing papers for college ask Gilliam why there’s no Afrocentricity in his art. He has said he only believes in art. He told the Los Angeles Times, “The limitation imposed on me by being a black artist was almost killing. I kept thinking that if I were white I’d have had much more.” He sees the situation of black artists as better today. “We’re able to integrate into other social situations now and have a sense of other things happening outside of our own concerns. With the issues of obscenity and women artists in the air, we can talk about the harm that happens to someone else. It’s a better way of expressing our common humanity.”
Gilliam also has been criticized for having a repetitive format, providing too much of a good thing, “worrying the canvas surface… like a neurotic architect who can’t keep his hands off his work,” according to New York magazine, and being too jazzy. On the positive side Ferdinand Protzman wrote of Gilliam’s recent work in the Washington Post, “The idea is to share with [viewers] the energy inherent in the process of creating the work, to make them feel the ripping, pinning and painting, the motion and emotion that went into it.” Jean Lawlor Cohen wrote in Artnews, “Through an alchemy of metallic powders, pumice, and other mediums, Gilliam continues to defy any pure distinction between painting and sculpture.”
While some critics write in awe of the sheer scale of Gilliam’s works and the quantity of paint he uses, others, like Jane Addams Allen told Art in America, “... Gilliam is an astonishingly innovative artist… His strength lies in an absolute refusal to pare down the expression of his experience and emotion to suit some a priori notion of what a painting or sculpture should be. He has not lost his sense of adventure before his materials—and as a result has not lost the capacity to surprise.”
Some early 1980s pieces used metal in conjunction with other materials. Gilliam’s Verticle D series of 21 small sand and mud-based paintings used a multicolored metal D-shaped form at the bottom of each painting. The series was shown in a one-man exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1983. Jane Addams Allen has pointed out in Art in America that these works were at first labeled “uncomfortable” and “eccentric” by critics who initially disliked them. They did not care for the metal D’s placed in the lower right-hand corner of each canvas, arguing that they gave the work a “quirky personality and a decidedly unbalanced posture.” Yet Jane Addams Allen has added, “... They force the viewer to switch back and forth between two modes of perception: on the one hand the interior painterly rhythms and lines of force demand attention, on the other the ‘D’s objectify the works, forcing them to be recognized as entities existing in real space. The tension between these two opposing sources of formal energy is what makes the verticle D’s so discomfiting yet in the end so memorable.”
Gilliam has continued to make new series of works, using enamel and acrylic paints, as well as canvas, nylon, and awning materials in association with glass, mounted aluminum and other metals. Geometric shapes still figure prominently in his art. Gilliam labors on a monumental scale over public art. He did a hanging aluminum-awning piece that used geometric shapes, for the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. In his more recent works he has participated with four or five people on big multimedia pieces for public spaces, like subways and public buildings. Made of enamel covered over with acrylic paint, they jut far off the wall into space.
Of Gilliam’s success Daniel Grant wrote in American Artist, “[He] keeps up with the contemporary art scene by frequently changing his style, his materials, or something about the way he works. For him, this is a positive way to keep his work innovative and to keep learning.” Gilliam told Grant in the same article, “My formula has always been one of change… It’s really a matter of confidence and of gut instincts. I’ll take a chance on losing everything in order to gain something else. As a result, I usually gain, because all of my experiences and methods are cumulative.”
Summing up the nature of Gilliam’s work Jane Addams Allen wrote in Art in America, “The power of Gilliam’s art lies precisely in the dynamic equilibrium maintained between the art object’s will to coherence and the counterbalancing pull toward dissolution and chaos.”
Carousel Form II, 1969.
Abacus Sliding, 1977.
Crazy Indiana, 1980.
Plantagenets Golden, 1984.
Uli Montage, 1993.
Genetic, Genetic, 1994.
Carrito, Joann, editor, Contemporary Artists, St. James Press, 1996, pp. 426-427.
Cederholm, Theresa D., Afro-American Artists, Boston Public Library, 1973, pp. 103-104.
Cummings, Paul, editor, Dictionary of Contemporary American Artists, Saint Martin’s Press, 1994, pp. 267-268.
Jeffri, Joan, editor, The Painter Speaks: Artists Discuss Their Experiences and Careers, Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 39-52.
Perry, Regenia A., Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art, Pomegranate, 1992, pp. 72-79.
American Artist, November 1990, pp. 12, 14, 20.
Artforum, May 1997.
Art in America, November 1981, p. 173; Summer 1983, pp. 161, 163; January 1986, pp. 99-104, 147; March 1990, pp. 201-202.
Art Journal, Spring 1991, pp. 10-11.
Artnews, September 1980, pp. 244-245; May 1993, p. 145.
Atlanta Constitution, May 15, 1987, sec. C.
Chicago Tribune, February 18, 1997, Sec. 5, p. 5+; March 28, 1997, p. 54.
Los Angeles Times, December 24, 1990, p. F8.
New Art Examiner, September 1991, p. 36.
New York, March 23, 1981, pp. 58-59.
New York Times, May 3, 1991, Sec. C, p. 19; March 18, 1994, Sec. C, p. 21.
Vogue, April 1981, pp. 286-287, 329.
Washington Post, April 28, 1975, p. Bl, B9; March 4, 1989, Sec. C, p. 1; February 24, 1990, Sec. C, p. 2; February 20, 1993, p. B2; February 28, 1993, p. Gl, G7; November 5, 1994, p. D2; January 21, 1995, Sec. D, p. 2; March 16, 1996, p. D2; July 20, 1996, p. B2.
—Alison Carb Sussman
Sam Gilliam (born 1933) merged aspects of action painting, color field painting, and postpainterly abstraction with his own unique approach to the shaped canvas. The result is color structured by the form of the canvas itself.
Sam Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933. He received a B.A. degree in fine arts and an M.A. degree in painting (1961) from the University of Louisville, Kentucky. He later resided in Washington, D.C. and taught in public schools there as well as prominent art schools and universities in Washington D.C., Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Throughout his career, Gilliam was concerned with problems of color, atmosphere, and structure. His interest in color staining was inspired, in part, by the work of "Washington color artists" such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. A strong philosophical influence also came from the sculptor Rockne Krebs, with whom Gilliam shared a studio building.
Gilliam's work is rich and varied and involves juxtapositions of color and monochrome, thin stains of paint, and impasto. His early work from the 1960s is geometric and hard-edged. In 1966 he became interested in color staining, pouring paint in broad, translucent flows, thereby creating interpenetrating areas of saturated color.
A year later he began experimenting with a new technique which involved staining a canvas with acrylic paints and then folding or rolling it to create a series of vertical striations. The canvases were then stretched on beveled stretchers in such a way that the painting formed its own frame. These folded paintings of 1967 recall Barnett Newman's work with the repeating vertical stripe.
In 1968 Gilliam responded to the general movement towards "painting as object" with his own brand of shaped paintings: large-scale (30 to 40 foot) suspended canvases with paint flowed and folded on. In these highly sculptural works, gravity and the flexibility of the fabric give the paintings their structure. The way the painting is hung can also determine the color arrangement, by placing noncontiguous areas of the canvas side by side through draping and folding the fabric. These "freed" canvases are not bound by stretchers or frame and are designed to unite with their architectural settings. Not only are spatial variations created by looping and draping the cloth, but also by the interaction of the work with the containing space of the room. The effect from a distance is one of interweaving arcs of color, much like the aurora borealis.
Autumn Surf, a work created in 1973 for the San Francisco Museum of Art, was designed to be entirely free of wall support. One hundred and fifty yards of polypropylene were spread and draped over wooden beams attached to vertical posts and were also hung from ceiling hooks. The overall effect was of waves crashing on the shoreline.
Gilliam's first outdoor piece, an installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art entitled Seahorses, dates from 1975. It was a vast project utilizing 16,800 square feet of material and 250 gallons of acrylic paint.
Later Gilliam experimented with a variety of armatures for his draped paintings, including sawhorses, poles, and screens.
During the 1970s Gilliam continued to work with stretched canvases, experimenting with folding, staining, pouring, and splashing as methods of paint application. During this period his work reveals an increasing interest in the effects of translucent paints. The Ray Series (1970-1972) uses a wide range of colors, tones, and intensities. The Ahab Series (1973) tends towards a monochrome of silvery white.
Gilliam's 1973 work with assemblages incorporating buttons, photos, and laundry tickets gave way in the mid 1970s to textured canvases with wedge-shaped color insets which appear as though suspended in a fluid-like atmosphere. Gilliam painted canvas, cut it into geometric shapes, then collaged these pieces onto other canvases. The "white collage paintings" of 1976 were created by building up layers of paint in a variety of colors and tones, then covering the whole with a textured white impasto and over-glazing. In these works color appears almost as pure light.
The "black paintings" begun in 1977 are similarly heavily textured by layering black paint over other hues and then raking the surface of the painting. These linear configurations, and the geometric planes created by the cutcanvas collage technique, add unity and focus. The juxtaposition of dark tones with areas of color and the mixture of opaque and translucent paints result in a work where warm tones pervade and the vitality of the surface is enhanced.
By 1980, Gilliam applied sculptural elements to the surface of his canvasses, making three dimensional sculptural paintings. Later he created multimedia installations and used brightly stained polypropylene, layers of color, computer generated imaging, metallic and iridescent acrylics, hand made paper, aluminum, steel, and plastic. Gilliam's art was an example of evolution through aesthetic exploration.
Sam Gilliam frequently exhibited at the Fendrick Gallery in Washington, D.C. In 1969 eight of Gilliam's suspended canvases were included in a group exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery. In 1971 he had a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art and also created works for New Spaces, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. His 1975 work Seahorses was part of the Philadelphia Festival Project at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in 1977 he had an installation at Artpark in Lewiston, New York.
Gilliam has been the recipient of many commissions, grants, awards, and honorary doctorates since his first grant in 1967 from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has exhibited internationally and is known all over the world.
Gilliam married Dorothy Butler, a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post and the author of Paul Robeson, All-American (1976). The Gilliams had three daughters. As a hobby the artist collected antique toys, especially mechanical banks, and pieces of marble from around the world. They reside in Washington D.C. where Gilliam operates a large studio in the historic Shaw district and continues to create art which embellishes its surroundings and entices viewers with its daring diversity.
The best sources of information about contemporary artists are exhibition catalogues and journal articles. Among the former, the following contain useful information about Gilliam's work: Wadsworth Atheneum, Gilliam/Edwards/Williams: Extensions (1974); University of Pennsylvania, Institute of Contemporary Art, Material Pleasures; the Fabric Workshop at ICA (1979); Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American Art, Across the Nation: Fine Art for Federal Buildings, 1972-1979 (1980); University Gallery, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Sam Gilliam: Indoor and Outdoor Paintings, 1967-1978 (1978); and the Studio Museum in Harlem, Red and Black to "D": Paintings by Sam Gilliam (1982).
Helpful articles in periodicals include: Keith Morrison, "Interview with Sam Gilliam," New Art Examiner (June 1977); Jay Kloner, "Sam Gilliam: Recent Black Paintings," Arts Magazine (February 1978); Hugh M. Davies, "Sam Gilliam," Arts Magazine (March 1979); and Carrie Rickey, "Art from Whole Cloth," Art in America (November 1979).
For periodicals about Sam Gilliam see: Scholastic Art, December 1995.
For on-line resources about Sam Gilliam see: http://www.crosstownarts.com/CrosstownArts/clientart/sam/html and http://www.speedmuseum.org/samgilliam/westlou.html. □