“My work is about the time, the spirit, in which I live,” says 87-year-old painter Sam Gilliam, talking over the phone from his studio in Washington DC.
And what extraordinary times Gilliam has lived through and been motivated by. He was born in 1933 and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, at a time when schools and many public spaces were racially segregated. He was one of the hundreds of thousands present on August 28, 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in Washington DC. And last year, he watched as Black Lives Matter movements swept across the US and the globe, proving that equality for all remains a distant dream.
All of this and more is explored in Gilliam’s dramatic, abstract art, which he has been making for six decades. He was first celebrated for his work in the Sixties, when he pulled his colourful canvases off their stretchers and draped them from gallery walls like bedsheets billowing from a clothesline, blurring the boundaries between painting and sculpture. In a 2015 article in The Guardian, acclaimed African American artist Rashid Johnson and Los Angeles-based gallerist David Kordansky—who has worked with Gilliam since 2013—describe this move as being as radical as Jackson Pollock’s decision to flick paint onto canvas, rather than applying it with a brush.
These experimental pieces impressed curators and critics and, in 1971, Gilliam had a solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The following year, he represented the US at the Venice Biennale, making him the first Black artist to do so. There wasn’t another until 1997, when Robert Colescott received the honour; in 2022, sculptor Simone Leigh will become the first African American woman to represent the US at the event.
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