Sliced Up | Sam Gilliam

Born Samuel Gilliam, Jr. on November 30, 1933 in Tupelo, Mississippi, the young Gilliam moved with his family to Kentucky where he graduated from the University of Louisville with a BA degree, 1955. Already a skilled artist, he had his first solo exhibition that same year at the University. He later received his MFA from the University, 1961.

Contemporary artist Sam Gilliam in his studio surrounded by his work.

Photo of the artist in his studio, courtesy of ARTFORUM.

Gilliam himself knew he was a trail blazer of American abstraction while working in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, during a heated national Civil Rights movement which saw segregation not only amongst the populous common but also with the elite of the art world. The racial discrimination of the time did not deter the radical and boundary pushing young artist. His paint application process, transforming of supports, inventive mediums, scholarly approach, and fortitude helped set the stage for the future of abstract painting in the United States. Associates in the acclaimed Washington D.C. 'Color Field School' included renowned artists such as Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Paul Reed, Alma Thomas, and Thomas Downing. Gilliam expanded the Color Field notions by insinuating the "integrity of the picture plane," and shaking the experience of how viewers perceived visible art. During a moment when African American artists were merely expected to produce figurative work only addressing a racial-first subject matter, Gilliam instead created a new lyrical dialogue with his abstractions that heavily aided the development and evolution of non-objective art to transcend culture, race, religion, and politics.


In 1967 Gilliam created his first "Slice" series painting, which would become a series he would often return to over the course of the next few decades, manipulating canvases with rich and luminous effects on custom supports with a beveled edge. The effective intention was to remove the work from the flat surface of the wall itself and to project the vision toward the viewer in a dynamic fashion. "Orange Slice" (Lot 54) expounds upon this theory similarly to other coveted "Slice" series works held in major collections including but not limited to, "April 4, 1969" (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.); "Whirlirama" 1970 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); "Wide Narrow" 1972 (Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University); "Blue Twirl" 1971 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); and "Scatter" 1972 (Indianapolis Museum of Art).


In 1972, Gilliam became the first black artist to take part in the 36th Venice Biennale's American Pavilion curated by Walter Hopps. Concoran Gallery of Art honored his life work at the time with a retrospect in 2005. In 2015 he had the prestigious honor of receiving the United States Department of State's first ever Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award. His body of work is now celebrated in prestigious collections worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.; and the Tate Modern, London, amongst others. In 2017, Gilliam's work was well received and honored at the 57th Venice Biennale, considered by many to be the world's greatest convention of art and culture.


Now considered one of the greatest innovators of Post-War modern art, Sam Gilliam recently passed away June 25, 2022, at the age of 88. At the time of his death, his bold and prolific oeuvre was on display at Hirshhorn Museum, Smithsonian as part of a solo exhibition entitled: Sam Gillam: Full Circle.