A Work in Progress


At 87, Sam Gilliam is enjoying a career high. In 2018 the artist unveiled a major commission for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and in 2022 he will be the subject of an ambitious retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, both in Washington, D.C., where he continues to live and work.

Gilliam has been a fixture of the nation’s capital since 1961. He moved there with his then-wife, the journalist Dorothy Butler Gilliam, after earning his MFA from the University of Louisville, which followed a childhood spent in northern Mississippi. After teaching in Louisville’s public school system as a way to sustain his life as an artist, Gilliam soon dedicated himself full-time to painting and in 1972 became the first Black artist to show at the Venice Bienniale. Despite a long and productive career, Gilliam’s return to the spotlight is hard-won. The artist has only recently brought debilitating chronic illness under control, thanks in part to a revised treatment plan that has facilitated a creative rebirth. Critics, curators, and scholars are now taking notice of his new work, while revisiting Gilliam’s breakthrough creations from the late 1960s and the achievements since that time that form the arc of his career.

It is difficult to describe Gilliam in terms of a specific style, though viewers often have a visceral response to his creations. Like many other artists who emerged amid the hangover of Abstract Expressionism, Gilliam reckoned with the material possibilities of color and new directions for abstraction. In this way he was attuned to work by artists, such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, of the so-called Washington Color School. He was also drawn to the techniques of Barnett Newman and Robert Ryman, both of whom worked in New York City.

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This story appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of MILIEU.