Artists of Black History Month: Sam Gilliam

Liz Catalano
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Signed Monoprint by Color Field Painter Offered at Toomey & Co.

Sam Gilliam’s work set a new tone for American art in the 20th century. He rose to fame during the 1960s and early 70s with his “Drape” paintings. These colorful works discarded stretcher bars in favor of dramatic installations. Gilliam always leaned into abstraction, even when his Black contemporaries embraced figural works that documented history and struggle. He instead joined the ranks of Color Field painters in Washington, D.C. to challenge and expand the boundaries of modern art. 

“There are few artists who change the course of possibilities in painting,” said Pace Gallery’s Arne Glimcher to The New York Times, “and [Gilliam is] one of them.” 

Toomey & Co. Auctioneers will present a signed monoprint from Sam Gilliam’s mid-career on February 25th, 2021. Live bidding will begin at 11:00 AM EST. Read on to learn more about Sam Gilliam and his place in American art history.

Portrait of Sam Gilliam in 1980. Photo by Anthony Barboza via Getty Images.
Portrait of Sam Gilliam in 1980. Photo by Anthony Barboza via Getty Images.

Born in Mississippi during the Great Depression, Sam Gilliam is the seventh of eight children. He pursued art through his 20s before serving in the U.S. Army for two years. When Gilliam returned to civilian life, he settled in Washington, D.C. Gilliam intentionally avoided New York in his early career. He disliked the city’s competitive climate and refused to fit his art into the local market’s expectations. 

Gilliam began making his iconic Drape paintings around 1965. He painted vast pieces of canvas with stain and splatter techniques. The artist hung the loose canvases from walls and ceilings in defiance of traditional painting. Critics still discuss the meaning and inspiration of these abstract works. Gilliam has pointed out some connections for the viewer to consider. The paintings resemble laundry hanging from a clothesline and contain nods toward Black American jazz. They also carry undertones of political subversion, reflecting the upheaval of the civil rights movement.

Despite their similarities, the Drape paintings are never displayed the same way. “Depending on the space and the place and the moment, they need to be almost performed—you don’t just hang them like most paintings,” Josef Helfenstein, a director and curator at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland, told Art Basel.

Sam Gilliam, Manet, 1998. Image from Toomey & Co. Auctioneers.
Sam Gilliam, Manet, 1998. Image from Toomey & Co. Auctioneers.

Gilliam moved away from his Drape paintings at the height of their popularity. He returned to traditional canvases with his beveled-edge paintings and dabbled in works on paper. Toomey & Co. Auctioneers’ upcoming sale will offer a mixed media monoprint from this period. Titled Manet, Gilliam executed the print in 1998. It features competing yet colorful patterns, shapes, and cut-outs. This signed monoprint carries an estimate of USD 1,000 to $2,000. 

Interest in Color Field pieces by Black artists has been on the rise since the early 1990s. Curators recognized the racial bias of the industry and started to course-correct. Several leading galleries organized shows highlighting the work of mid-20th century Black artists, which emphasized their contributions to major artistic movements. Though Gilliam always enjoyed a degree of popularity, this shift helped raise his gallery prices.

Gilliam’s original works and prints also perform well at auction. Widewalls estimates that the artist has an 83% sell-through rate, especially after dozens of artworks hit the market in 2018 and 2019. Gilliam’s Lady Day II achieved one of his highest results at auction in 2018, reaching $2,172,500 at Christie’s. This reflects the staggered pricing of Gilliam’s works. His Drape and beveled paintings tend to exceed $500,000, while prints and small sculptures have more modest estimates. Previous editions of Manet have sold for approximately $4,000.

Sam Gilliam, Lady Day II, 1971. Image from Christie’s.

Gilliam was the first Black American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1972. However, it took years for his work to be exhibited abroad, contributing to a delay in his international recognition. Curators and collectors are fixing that. In 2018, Gilliam was 84 years old and enjoyed his first solo museum exhibition in Europe. He continues to accept major commissions and pursue his interests. In a 2016 interview with Hyperallergic, Gilliam summarized his future plans: “I’m just getting started.” 

Bidding for Sam Gilliam’s 1998 Manet monoprint will begin at 11:00 AM EST on February 25th, 2021. Visit LiveAuctioneers for the full catalog and to place a bid. 

Interested in reading more about Black artists this February? Auction Daily recently explored the work of Jacob Lawrence, an American painter who captured the social forces of the 20th century.