Sam Gilliam is considered to be one of the most prodigious innovators in postwar American painting. He emerged from the Washington, D.C. art scene in the mid 1960s as part of the Washington Color School artists who expounded upon the work of the Color School practitioners of the 1950s. Also known as a Lyrical Abstractionist, Gilliam’s innovation in the medium of painting caused his canonical Drape paintings, for which he is credited as originator. Suspending stretcher-free lengths of painted canvas from the ceilings and/or walls Gilliam transformed painting, providing a sculptural element which changed the contexts in which painting was understood. As an African American man in the nation’s capital at the pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement, Gilliam used his work to define a certain type of freedom—claiming the agency to do ‘what he wanted when he wanted through painting. Inspired by the language of music—particularly jazz—Gilliam’s form of improvisational abstraction influenced troves of artists of his generation and after and is considered one of the most significant black artists of his time.
Sam Gilliam's work is included in public collections worldwide and he has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington, D.C.; Speed Memorial Museum, Louisville, Kentucky; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland; Dia: Beacon, New York; among many other institutions.