Sam Gilliam Interview: Artists Are Supposed to Change

“It’s fun to fail. You learn something: How not to fail.” We had the pleasure of meeting one of the great innovators in post-war American painting, the legendary abstract painter Sam Gilliam (b.1933), in “the most beautiful place on earth” – his studio in Washington D.C. With warmth and humour, Gilliam shares stories from his life and talks about painting.

“The thing about art is that sometimes you’re broke. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but I’ve never lost entirely. As Aretha said: You just keep on keepin’ on,” the painter says laughing. Gilliam talks about drawing on dirt as a child and being inspired by Marvel comics and murals. He finds that abstract art can be just as political as representational art: “It messes with you. It convinces you that what you think isn’t all. And it challenges you to understand something that’s different… Just because it looks like something that resembles you, it doesn’t’ mean that you have an understanding.” In connection to this, Gilliam stresses that when he makes art, he likes the experience of coming out with something different: “That’s what I’m here for. That’s what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to change.”

Sam Gilliam (1933-2022) is an American painter associated with the Color Field School. He is particularly known for his innovation of hung and draped canvas outside of the traditional stretcher frame and has also worked with plastic and sculptural elements in his paintings. In 1972, Gilliam represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale – the first African American artist to do so. Gilliam has had solo exhibitions at Whitney Museum of American Art and MoMA in New York among many other institutions, and in 2018 he was the subject of a major retrospective at Kunstmuseum Basel. His works are held in several collections including the Art Institute of Chicago, Tate Modern in London, and Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Gilliam is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and honours.

Sam Gilliam was interviewed by Christian Lund at his studio in Washington D.C. in October 2018.

Camera: Matthew Kohn

Edited by Roxanne Bagheshirin Lærkesen

Produced by Christian Lund

Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020

Supported by Nordea-fonden




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