#RespectYourElders: Sam Gilliam, born in 1933, is a celebrated abstract artist best known for his association with the Washington Color School and the unique draped canvas technique he employs in many of his pieces.
Gilliam’s career as an artist took off soon after he received his Master of Arts degree in painting from the University of Louisville. As an African American navigating life in the 1960s, the style of Gilliam’s early art often mirrored much of the political uncertainty and chaos of that time. His experiences inspired him to push artistic boundaries, eventually resulting in his famous draped canvas technique. Instead of keeping his artwork contained in a structured frame, Gilliam starting thinking of his art like a flexible bedsheet. This technique allowed his artwork to change significantly depending on how the piece was draped.
“Every time you show [Gilliam’s art], it’s unique — you can’t drape it the exact same way twice,” Kunstmuseum director Josef Helfenstein recently told the New York Times. “It has to change. And that’s why it’s so radical.”
Gilliam was part of a group of artists that developed a new type of abstract painting within the Washington Color School. This style, called color field painting, is commonly characterized by the large-scale use of color and a “minimum of surface detail.” His draping technique influenced the style’s widespread popularity and adoption.
Today, interest in Gilliam’s art has surged. His work appears in galleries all over the world. Just last year, his painting Rays sold at auction for $684,500 — the highest price one of Gilliam’s pieces has commanded to date.
At the age of 84, Gilliam has no intention of slowing down. While he spends three days a week receiving dialysis, he uses his appointments to brainstorm ideas for his next creation.
“I’ve never felt better in my life,” Gilliam told NPR. “I stopped drinking, I stopped smoking. I live for this period of being in the studio and actually working.”
Read more about Gilliam’s story here.