“I am outlandishly famous,” Sam Gilliam says on a recent afternoon as he walks across his sunlit studio in the District’s Brightwood Park.
He’s joking, though a little swagger would be understandable at the moment. At 82, Gilliam is coming off the opening of a critically acclaimed exhibition in Los Angeles. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and MOMA recently acquired works of his. Come September, the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture will unveil a sprawling piece, 28-feet-long, that is one of the highest-profile commissions of his career.
This artistic rebirth has caught even those closest to him by surprise. Just a few years ago, Gilliam was unable to work or really function at all. Then a new set of doctors, prodded by his family, determined that what ailed the artist wasn’t his health but overzealous attempts to manage it. Changes were made, medications dropped, and recovery came quickly.
“He went from somebody who was sort of catatonic on the couch to somebody who realized he was fit enough to travel extensively,” says Melissa Gilliam, the second of his three daughters. “He went from not knowing whether he was able to paint again to climbing five flights of stairs. It’s been transformative for him.”
These days, Gilliam is a working artist. He heads to his studio five days a week, talks about acquiring another sports car and explores his latest artistic shift — the vibrant wooden panels varnished as deliciously as Icelandic glaciers. When his five-paneled piece is displayed in September, it will be the first time any of this new work has been shown to the public. And there’s more to come.
“After 30, 40 years of painting, 30, 40 years of wondering what I should do, it’s now like this,” he says, and snaps his fingers.
Gilliam is not easy to categorize. His work has been acquired by some of the world’s most important contemporary art collectors, but he’s not a household name. He’s a black artist who came of age during the civil rights movement, and he has a major piece going into the nation’s first federally owned museum devoted to African American culture. Yet he’s never been one for marches or political protests. If anything, he’s fought hard to keep his work from being defined by race.
In 1971, Gilliam pulled out of an exhibition of work by black artists at the Whitney Museum of American Art because, as he wrote in a letter signed by six other artists also protesting, the show represented “the worst form of tokenism without any regard for our real qualities.”
“In black studies or on television now,” he says today, “they take blood, and they tell you where you came from. I don’t give a damn about that.”
Gilliam has painted on canvas and worked in mixed media, created in galleries and on the sides of dirt hills. He has been called an abstract expressionist and a color field painter. Those who know his work don’t try to define him with art-world catchphrases.
“I call him Sam Gilliam, an extraordinary artist who has broken all sorts of boundaries,” says Spelman College’s president, Mary Schmidt Campbell, who showed Gilliam’s work decades ago when she ran the Studio Museum in Harlem.
He was born on Thanksgiving Day, 1933, in Tupelo, Miss., the seventh of eight children. When he was 9, the family moved to Kentucky, where Gilliam received his master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Louisville in 1961. He moved to the District in 1962 because Dorothy Butler, whom he would marry, got a job at The Washington Post. She was the first African American woman hired as a reporter by the newspaper.
It was a good time to be in D.C. You could see Monk or Miles at the Bohemian Caverns and mingle with other artists at gallery openings in Adams Morgan. That’s where Gilliam met the artist Tom Downing, who was older and had studied with the pioneering Washington Color School painter Kenneth Noland. Downing went to Gillian’s first solo show in 1963.
“He teased me,” Gilliam remembers. “He said, ‘You’re scared to paint.’ Hell, everybody else is painting abstract art and pop art.”
Suddenly, he moved away from figurative works to a series of hard-edged pieces that could have come out of a Morris Louis catalogue. He began to strip off tape, letting the colors bleed and swirl. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Gilliam reinvented himself again. He dropped the frame altogether.
This doesn’t sound dramatic, but wait until you see it. The “draped” paintings, as they would be called, were abstract works on canvas but without a frame, the canvases could be stretched across walls, bunched up like bed sheets, even hung from ceilings.
The first draped works were unveiled at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1969 in what Paul Richard, then a critic for The Post, called “an enormously important show.” Later, they would be displayed all across the United States, including a dramatic installation on the outside walls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1975.
So why did he do it? How did and does he make such radical changes?
Talking to Gilliam about his creative impulses is like trying to analyze a John Coltrane solo. You can feel the energy, the innovation, the fact that this music could only be coming from this horn. But it’s hard to explain exactly how it came into being. Eventually, you both look at the wall, admiringly, and realize intellectualizing is futile.
He is inspired by everything, his own history, the books he reads, the lifetime of traveling and the examples set by artists who came before. A conversation with Gilliam darts across disciplines, continents and time. He talks of the Sistine Chapel, Monet’s water lilies and Countee Cullen, whose poem “Yet Do I Marvel” provided the title of the new piece for the national African American museum.
Sticking to one style, Gilliam says, never struck him as a good idea.
“There are theories in art, just like in music,” he explains. “You switch from Little Jimmy Dickens to Bob Dylan and Miles Davis to Art Blakey.”
“Integrating of classical music and jazz, that’s the same thing you do in painting,” Gilliam continues. “From the floor to the wall. Hanging from the ceiling. You just restructure what you do in terms of its history.”
Here he pauses and laughs.
“That’ll get you in a lot of trouble.”
Again, he’s joking but behind that joke is a kind of truth. “Trouble” may be a way of saying “less marketable.”
Pamela Joyner, a San Francisco-based collector who has amassed works by some of the country’s most important 20th-century black artists — including Romare Bearden, Mark Bradford and Gilliam — says the artist’s range and approach held him back commercially.
“This is the dawn of the civil rights movement, and what the African American community wanted to see was uplifting images of African Americans,” she says. “That’s understandable. That’s why Sam and others toiled away without any recognition or any acclaim for many, many years.”
Campbell, executive director of the Studio Museum from 1977 to 1987, also felt that frustration.
“I wish he had more visibility,” she says. “Over the 40-year period I’ve known him, I see his work get recognition, and then it’s radio silence.”
In recent years, a narrative emerged that portrayed Gilliam as more than underappreciated. It talked of glory years, with museum exhibitions and his selection to represent the United States at the 1972 Venice Biennale. Then, the artist disappears and goes nearly broke and fades into “oblivion,” as the London Guardian put it. As the story goes, Gilliam even traded art for laundry detergent, a claim made in T, the New York Times style magazine, and corrected later because it wasn’t true.
“When I first heard it, this narrative and how terrible things were, I sort of took it as an affront,” Melissa Gilliam says. “But what I realized is that, given that he was in the Biennale in the early ’70s, he should have experienced more of a sustained high. That’s why they’re using ‘rediscovered.’ It’s not that someone was lost. It’s getting their career back on track.”
“I really wasn’t that down on my luck,” says Gilliam, noting that he has a house with a swimming pool. (He also sold his old studio, on 14th and U NW, for $3.85 million in 2010.)
But he did stop working for a time. Annie Gawlak, his longtime partner, had a bout with throat cancer. (Gilliam and his wife, Dorothy, divorced in the 1980s.) Gilliam, diagnosed as bipolar in the 1960s and put on lithium, found his kidneys were badly damaged. Gawlak got better, and Gilliam got off the medication. He also changed his diet, cutting out red meat and adding fruits and nuts.
Then David Kordansky called. The Los Angeles gallerist was one more person who felt that Gilliam needed more attention.
When they met in 2012, Kordansky found Gilliam’s work being shown in the District, New Mexico and what he calls “decentralized markets outside the art market essentially.”
“It needed to be brought to the curators. It needed to be seen at the international art fairs, and it needed a voice behind it,” Kordansky says.
“This was one of the ways we began to reshape his position within the art world,” Kordansky says. “By simply retelling the story. It’s an incredible story, and you can’t devalue the story. The story is powerful enough to shape the perception of his work within the art world.”
Melissa Gilliam agrees. She notes that her father, from a relatively poor family in segregated Kentucky, has three daughters who have attended Ivy League schools. He’s also realized that, even in his 80s, he can work and travel freely.
“I guess it was last summer,” she says, “Annie [Gawlak] finally convinced him to take a trip, to get back on an airplane. He had basically said he wasn’t going to travel again. She ended up slipping and ended up with this broken ankle and wrist. He had to do everything. What he discovered is he could do everything. So he traveled. After that, he was like, ‘Oh, I can go travel again and see other artists and be giving talks.’
“He had a trip to New York, and he went to Philadelphia, and then he had his show in L.A. And then he gave a talk in New York. He is discovering that there is some more art to come and life to come. Who knows what happens next?”