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Sam Gilliam Portrait

Sam Gilliam

Tupelo, Mississippi 1933

Active in:

  • Washington, District of Columbia

Photo Caption:
Courtesy Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Luce Artist Quote

"I’ve learned to ‘get rid of rules’ . . . which is the best form of creation." The artist, quoted in Sam Gilliam: Of Fireflies and Ferris Wheels: Monastery Parallel, Art Museum Kloster Unser Lieben Frauen, 1996-97


Gilliam is an innovative color field painter who has advanced the inventions associated with the Washington Color School. During the late 1970s, Sam Gilliam discovered that by cutting and rearranging geometric shapes from thickly painted canvases, he could expand his experiments in color and improvisation. The shifting irregular patterns in these randomly patterned canvases resemble those found in African American "crazy quilts." His large scale installations in metro stations and airports are as stimulating as his studio pieces.

Gwen Everett African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C. and New York: Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003)

Additional Biographies

Luce Artist Biography

Sam Gilliam grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, and studied art in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1962 he moved to Washington, D.C., and created abstract paintings inspired by the Washington Color School artists Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. These artists, among others, broke the rules of abstract expressionism by pouring thinned paint directly onto unprimed canvas instead of applying thick, vigorous brushstrokes. Gilliam pushed this method even further by folding and draping the canvas before it dried, creating unusual “tie dye” effects. He started working with very large canvases in the late 1960s, hanging vast pieces of painted cloth across walls and ceilings to emphasize the relationship between the work and its environment.