Sam Gilliam (b. 1933, Tupelo, Mississippi) is one the great innovators in postwar American painting. Early in his career, he made clean-edged abstractions, in line with Washington Color School painters such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. He gradually loosened up his style, soaking or pouring colors directly onto his canvases and folding them before they dried—a technique which created accordion lines and a deep sense of texture. Around 1965, he made his greatest stylistic innovation: He got rid of the stretcher bars that traditionally underpin a painting and draped his canvases from the wall like sheets from a clothesline.
In 1972 Gilliam became the first black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, in 2005 the Corcoran Gallery of Art organized a traveling retrospective of the artist’s work, and just last year Dia: Beacon presented a semi-permanent installation of Gilliam’s paintings which I had the pleasure of seeing on a recent trip out east.
His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; the Kunstmuseum, Basel; and many others.