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.
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.
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.