Sam Gilliam speaking in 2018. Photo: Bangabandhu

The pioneering artist Sam Gilliam passed away last weekend at age 88. Epicenter’s artistic director Nitin Mukul reflects on his experience meeting him and the profound impact it had.

Gilliam’s work at Dia Beacon in 2020. Photo: Nitin Mukul

I lived in Washington, D.C., from 2003-2005, where our first child Naya was born. I was working as an art director at K12, an online learning company, where I quickly became friends with my co-worker Bennie Johnson, a collector of African American contemporary and modern art. Bennie helped me navigate the art scene in D.C. where he had a sharp eye for emerging talent. He acquired works by Titus Kaphar when he was right out of grad school, and had early pieces by Kara Walker and Beauford Delaney. I shared my work with Bennie and he asked me If I wanted to meet his painter friend, Sam. That happened to be Sam Gilliam.

Gilliam’s work at Dia Beacon in 2020. Photo: Nitin Mukul

I visited Sam in his sprawling studio on U Street, an epicenter of 20th century African American culture. He spent more than an hour generously looking at my work and giving me feedback.  One thing I clearly remember was Sam telling me that my work need not be explicitly literal in order to have social and political impact. Just before I left D.C. for India I saw his retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery. It was astonishing. In 2008, as I was about to leave India for New York, I made a move to take painting off of the canvas and bridge it with video, calling it “durational painting.” The resulting work would be more abstract and improvisational than anything I had previously made. Reflecting on Sam after hearing of his passing this week, I realize there’s a connection between the wisdom he shared, his revolutionary dispensing of the traditional canvas stretcher in the 60s and the technique I innovated years after meeting him. He was exemplary. Rest in power.

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