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Sam Gilliam

Born 1933, Tupelo, Mississippi 

Died 2022, Washington D.C. 

Sam Gilliam was one of the great innovators of Post-War American Art and a leading member of what has come to be known as the Washington Color School. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Gilliam was raised in Louisville, Kentucky. He served in the United States Army for two years, stationed in Japan. In 1962 Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C., where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. 

Throughout his career, Gilliam’s lyrical abstractions were inspired and drawn from many sources, including poetry and music. The improvisatory nature of jazz often seems fused into his works, with their rich variety of forms, shapes, moods, and materials. By the mid- to late 1960s Gilliam had begun to challenge the conventional boundaries of painting beyond the age-old traditions of applying paints on to a canvas stretched across a shallow support. Shunning the idea of pure colors and pristine, monochromatic surfaces, Gilliam’s works became more layered and textured. The title of his work on view, Recitals, has clear associations with music and live performance. Its composition and rich patterning may also recall the patchwork and quilting that were part of his childhood.

Gilliam collaborated with several master printers and fine art publishers during his career, which offered him an opportunity to explore a range of new techniques and materials. He created Recitals with the Tandem Press at the University of Wisconsin, as a special, editioned work for the NAACP.

In addition to innumerable awards and honors, Gilliam’s work is included in over fifty public collections. Among these the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Tate Modern, London, the Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago.