Freeman’s is celebrating Black History Month by highlighting prominent African American artists whose work has shaped their field.
Sam Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Missisippi, in 1933 and studied Fine Art at the University of Louisville, the Kentucky city where his family moved during his childhood. He received a B.A. and later an M.F.A. in painting, and would go on to teach art at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Corcoran School, and Carnegie Mellon Unviversity.
Throughout his long and prolific career, Gilliam has been variously associated with Color Field Painting, Abstract Expressionism and Lyrical Abstraction. Continuously exploring new aesthetic possibilities and employing experimental working techniques, the artist has defied strict characterization, drawing inspiration from each of these movements, while pushing his own artwork ever forward.
Gilliam first became interested in Color Field painting upon meeting Thomas Downing in 1963. Downing was a prominent member of the Washington Color School, a group that also included Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring, Morris Louis, Paul Reed and Gene Davis. These artists were interested in color as a primary subject, often applying it in large, flat planes and utilizing innovative methods to transfer it to the canvas. Gilliam, who had previously been largely influenced by the German Expressionists he had studied at the University of Louisville, was inspired by the group’s philosophy and began to work on large-scale colorful paintings of his own.
By the mid-1960s, Gilliam had begun to undertake the work that has come to be considered his seminal achievement: his drape paintings. In them, he liberated the canvas from its stretcher, pouring and staining it with acrylic and metallic paints that spread and mingled as he manipulated the fabric. He then draped the canvas from a wall or a ceiling, allowing it to hang, fold or move in ways not previously conceived. In so doing, the work became both painting and sculpture, forever altering the way we perceive the picture plane and its limitations.
Gilliam was the first African American artist to represent the United States at the prestigious Venice Biennale, in 1972. Forty-five years later, his drape painting “Yves Klein Blue” was hung outside of the festival’s Central Pavillion. In 2016, he was commissioned by the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. to create a work for the much-anticipated opening. The title of the finished piece, “Yet I Do Marvel,” was taken from a poem of the same name by Countee Cullen, an accomplished writer and prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
Gilliam’s work has been included in the collections of museums and institutions the world over, from his adopted Washington, D.C., to Paris, and his native Louisville. The past few years have seen a resurgance in the artist’s popularity at auction. Most notably, his “Idylls I” sold in Freeman’s November 2017 Modern & Contemporary Art Auction for $370,000, after a flurry of bidding activity, far surpassing its presale estimate of $50,000-80,000.