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Sam Gilliam

Artist 201

Sam Gilliam

Abstract and installation artist

Sam Gilliam (born in 1933) is an African American color field painter and lyrical abstractionist artist. He is considered one the great innovators in postwar American painting.

He is associated with the Washington Color School. This is a group of Washington, D.C. area artists that developed a form of abstract art from color field painting in the 1950s and 1960s.

He works on stretched, draped and wrapped canvas, and adds sculptural 3D elements. He is recognized as the first artist to introduce the idea of a draped, painted canvas hanging without stretcher bars around 1965. This was a major contribution to the Color Field School.

Color field painting is a style of abstract painting that emerged in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s. It was inspired by European modernism and closely related to abstract expressionism.

Color field is characterized primarily by large fields of flat, solid color spread across or stained into the canvas creating areas of unbroken surface and a flat picture plane. The movement places less emphasis on gesture, brushstrokes and action in favour of an overall consistency of form and process. In color field painting "color is freed from objective context and becomes the subject in itself.

In the 1960s Gilliam was inspired by the specific conditions of the African-American experience and expressed this in his abstract art. This was at a time that "abstract art was said by some to be irrelevant to black African life." - John Russell

Abstraction remained a critical issue for artists such as Gilliam. His early style developed from brooding figural abstractions into large paintings of flatly applied color, pushing Gilliam to eventually remove the easel by eliminating the stretcher.

Around 1965, Gilliam became the first painter to introduce the idea of the unsupported canvas. He was inspired to do this by observing laundry hanging outside his Washington studio.

His drape paintings were suspended from ceilings or arranged on walls or floors, representing a sculptural third dimension in painting. Gilliam says that his paintings are based on the fact that the framework of the painting is in real space. He is attracted to its power and the way it functions.

Gilliam's draped canvases change in each environment where they are arranged and frequently he embellishes the works with metal, rocks, and wooden beams.

In 1975, Gilliam veered away from the draped canvases, and became influenced by jazz music. He started producing dynamic geometric collages, which he called "Black Paintings" because they are painted in shades of black.

In the 1980s Gilliam's style changed dramatically once more, transitioning to quilted paintings reminiscent of African patchwork quilts from his childhood, using an improvisational approach.

Gilliam transforms his medium and the contexts in which it is viewed. For an African-American artist in the nation’s capital at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, this was not merely an aesthetic proposition; it was a way of defining art’s role in a society undergoing dramatic change. Gilliam has subsequently pursued a pioneering course in which experimentation has been the only constant.

His works become both painting and sculpture. I find his drape paintings really beautiful and I love the performance element of his installation. Each time he sets up his artworks the curating depends and changes with the space.

Sources Consulted:

John Russell, John (1983). "Art". The New York Times.


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