THE SIX-DECADE CAREER of Sam Gilliam has been defined by a commitment to color and a penchant for invention, innovation, and charting his own path.

In the mid-1960s, Gilliam developed two new formats for presenting his work. He began wrapping his canvases on top of frames, creating his signature Beveled-Edge paintings. Then he removed his color-soaked canvases from the stretcher altogether, which resulted in his Drape paintings—sculptural forms he dramatically displayed draped along walls, suspended from ceilings, and over top of sawhorses.

In 1972, Gilliam made international art history. He was the first African American artist to show his work at the Venice Biennale, where he was featured in a group exhibition organized by Walter Hopps in the American Pavilion. A few years ago, Gilliam returned to the 57th Venice Biennale (2017), participating in the international exhibition curated by Christine Macel. He contributed a large-scale nylon Drape painting titled, “Yves Klein Blue.”


Artist Sam Gilliam, 87, talks about his new works on view at Pace Gallery in New York: large-scale paintings, monochromatic works on paper, and sculpture inspired by African architecture. | Video by Pace Gallery


Based in Washington, D.C., Gilliam is an abstract painter. He joined Pace Gallery in July 2019, a career milestone that marked the first time he was represented in New York. “Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing” is his first exhibition with the gallery. Currently on view in New York, Gilliam is showing three new bodies of work.

A series of composite, stained-wood geometric sculptures is inspired by ancient African architecture and represents an entirely new direction for the artist. Square monochromatic paintings are saturated with multiple layers of pigment on Japanese washi paper. Huge beveled-edge paintings, measuring 6 x 8 feet and 8 x 20 feet, from afar read as dark black-blue and nearly all-white only to reveal a spectrum of color under textured layers of paint upon closer inspection.

“The interesting thing is knowing what color you want to end with. If you are making white, then you are going to end with white, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you to start with white,” Gilliam said in an exhibition video. “You’ve got to work from the bottom colors up and build right back through it and various things to reveal what is under. If you rake or sow you can swirl the surface or dig deep and pull the under colors onto the surface.”

He added: “With the darker paintings I want you to know about something that happened a long time ago as my experience, or at least I am then trying to express something that is contemporary.”


SAM GILLIAM, “Blue 96″ Disc,” 2020 (wood, aluminum, diestain, lacquer). | Copyright 2020 Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Some of the paintings are titled in homage to pivotal cultural figures spanning generations, including the recently departed civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), tennis champion Serena Williams, and Beyoncé. One of the circular wall sculptures he realized is named for jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. (Last year, David Hammons dedicated his exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles to Coleman.)

The sculptures were inspired by Gilliam’s experiences in Basel, Switzerland, in 2018. During an extended stay for the installation of “The Music of Color: Sam Gilliam, 1967-1973” at the Kunstmuseum Basel, the artist noticed a change in the city’s demographics, a shift caused by an influx of largely African immigrants. Moved by the transformation and cultural influence he observed, back in his studio, when Gilliam set about making new work, he considered the fundamentals of African architecture.

A forthcoming catalog documents Gilliam’s show and includes an introduction by Pace Founder Arne Glimcher, with essay contributions by Courtney J. Martin and Fred Moten, and an interview with the artist conducted by Hans Ulrich Obrist.

During the conversation with Obrist, Gilliam explained the title of the show: “Existed Existing. As in, you weren’t there, but here it is—for your information, here it is.” CT


“Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing” is on view at Pace Gallery, New York, N.Y., from Nov. 6–Dec. 19, 2020. Appointments required due to health and safety protocols due to the pandemic

The current New York exhibition coincides with a presentation of six watercolors by Gilliam on view at Pace’s new space in Palm Beach, Fla. (Dec. 11, 2020–Jan. 3, 2021)


In spring 2022, a selection of works from the Pace New York show will be featured in a major museum retrospective of Gilliam at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C. Installation view of “Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing,” Pace Gallery, New York, N.Y., Nov. 6–Dec. 19, 2020. | Courtesy Pace Gallery


A forthcoming exhibition catalog will accompany “Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing” at Pace Gallery. “The Music of Color: Sam Gilliam, 1967-1973” was published to accompany the artist’s 2018 exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel, his first solo museum survey in Europe. The volume features contributions from artists Rashid Johnson and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, among others. “Sam Gilliam: 1967-1973” documents the artist’s 2017 exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery, his first solo show in New York in 25 years. “Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective” coincided with Sam Gilliam’s 2005 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a four-decade survey. Described as “the first in-depth book devoted to this major figure,” the volume includes forewords by Walter Hopps and Jacqueline Serwer, who was chief curator of the Corcoran at the time. Currently, Serwer is chief curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.


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