In Tribute: Sam Gilliam P ’85

Pioneering artist Sam Gilliam left a mark in life and an enduring impression at Sidwell Friends

Sam Gilliam P ’85, an abstract painter whose works of art brought new dimensionality to his medium, died last weekend at age 88. He had lived and worked in Washington DC for the last 60 years.

Several of Gilliam’s works are displayed around the Sidwell Friends campus, most notable among them the dramatic painting “Dark Felled,” which crowns the Kogod Arts Center lobby. The works were a gift of the Honorable Ann Winkelman Brown ’55, P ’80, P ’83, and Don Brown P ’80, P ’83, collectors and devotees of the vibrant works of artists associated with the Washington Color School, the still-flourishing abstract art movement that first gained recognition in the 1950s and 1960s.

Gilliam’s work became a national sensation almost overnight after a 1969 Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibit showcased his unstructured canvases—canvases bursting with color that flowed like drapes, rather than be affixed to internal frames. His work became associated with other DC greats like David Driskell, Lou Stovall P ’02, and Percy Martin, a onetime Sidwell Friends art teacher. Gilliam ultimately became the first African American artist to represent the United States in the prestigious Venice Biennale art exhibition. His work is featured in the Smithsonian, and his commissioned, large-scale painting in the National Museum of African American History and Culture has brought his work to an even larger audience.

Aaron Brophy, who teaches art at the Middle School and is the director of exhibitions at Sidwell Friends, reflected on the significance of Gilliam’s work to the Sidwell Friends community:

“Sam Gilliam has long been lauded for liberating the canvas from its stretchers. Sam’s paintings, his assemblages, and his drapes have been a part of the daily experience of Sidwell students for many years. We are blessed to have the opportunity to teach, and to learn, from Sam’s work without leaving the campus.  Sam continues to provide our community with the aesthetic gift of his Lyrical Abstractions, and in our students his inner Light lives on.”

Sidwell Friends School offers its condolences to the Gilliam family and will hold them in the Light.


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