Sam Gilliam: Breakout Art Star at 85

In today's instant 20-something art-star world, Sam Gilliam's star is rising after 60 years of creating art

Sam has been doing more or less the same thing for the last 60 years. Except now his paintings go for $2 million when in the past no one knew his name. Coming from Tupelo, Mississippi, then schooled in Louisville, Kentucky, Mr. Gilliam arrived in Washington D.C. in 1962, and he has lived and worked there ever since.

But now he is getting some big-time attention. There was last year’s a retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland. “Sam is the great abstract artist who represents a bridge between abstract expressionists of the midcentury and the renaissance that abstraction is enjoying today,” says Jonathan Binstock, a curator of the show.

There are so many fascinating parts to Sam Gilliam’s work and story. There is the marriage of painting and sculpture, groundbreaking at the time and still awe-inspiring. Have a look at the video below to get a better understanding of what he was doing. The idea of making a painting that is not flat, but not a rigid sculpture either is marvelous.

Most of the work in this show was done over a period of intense output between 1967 and 1973. He showed in the Venice Biennale back then but remained out of the spotlight, living and toiling quietly in Washington DC, out of the NYC artist glare of celebrity.

Sam Gilliam, ‘Change,’ 1970.

We find this somewhat sad, for us viewers anyway, as it would have been nice to have known about his work earlier. But for him, it was fine. Patience and solitude worked out well. This sort of career trajectory is almost unthinkable in today’s instant 20-something art-star world. But there was a time when becoming an artist did not mean celebrity and fancy dinners. It meant a lot of hard work, and probably another job to pay for it.

Not that one is better than the other: it’s fantastic if one happens to be quickly recognized as a genius — a Mozart or, later, a Basquiat. But there is also something nice about doing the work for the work’s sake.




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David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.


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