“My work consists of solids and veils: the union of solids, or metal forms, seen as volumes against a raked and grooved paint surface. It is constructed painting, in that it crosses the void between object and viewer, to be part of the space in front of the picture plane. It represents an act of pure passage. The surface is no longer the final plane of the work. It is instead the beginning of an advance into the theater of life.”
Internationally recognized as one of the foremost contemporary color field painters, Sam Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, the seventh of eight children. Soon after his birth, Gilliam’s father, a railroad worker, and his mother, a school teacher, moved the family to Louisville, Kentucky. Gilliam grew up in a structured, Baptist home, “No smoking, no drinking, no card playing, no going to basketball games. Everybody came home at 9:00 and you spent all day Sunday in church.” Gilliam began painting as a child and participated in a special arts program at his junior high school. After high school, he attended the University of Louisville, where he studied art with the German-born painter Ulfert Wilke. Gilliam received his BFA in 1955 and entered graduate school, but had to put his studies on hold while he served in the army for two years, spending most of that time in Japan. Upon completion of his service in 1958, he resumed his studies at the University of Louisville and received his MFA in 1961. He taught in the Louisville public education system for a year and then moved to Washington, DC.
In Washington, Gilliam befriended Thomas Downing and became part of the Washington Color School, moving away from his earlier style of dark figural abstraction towards the production of large works with fields of flatly applied color. Influenced by abstract expressionism, Gilliam experimented with methods of applying pigment, often pouring paint, staining canvases, and folding them while still wet. His fascination with the flexibility of canvas led to the revelation that “the canvas was not only the means to, but a primary part of, the object.” Gilliam’s conviction that painting could be three-dimensional led him to innovate with draping and suspending canvases; in 1965 he became the first painter to introduce the unsupported canvas. Just as he altered the terms on which painting and sculpture could be seen in relation to one another, Gilliam, like Norman Lewis, Alma Thomas, Richard Hunt, and other contemporaries working in abstraction, sought alternative ways to be a community-oriented artist engaged in politics. Although his art was not usually explicitly political, titles such as Jail Jungle (1968-1974) and Dark as I Am (1971-1972) allude to the realities of racial inequality in the United States. Furthermore, like his peers, Gilliam participated in demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience.