Sam Gilliam’s spontaneous and improvisational techniques, particularly his pouring of vivid pigment on to unstretched, draped canvas, make him one of the foremost artists to emerge from the Washington art scene. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, Gilliam spent his youth in Louisville, Kentucky. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Louisville in 1955, he served in the Army (1956-1958), then returned to the University for his Master of Arts degree (1961). In 1962 he moved to Washington, D.C.
Following an early figurative period, Gilliam began painting in an abstract idiom. In 1968, he affirmed his place among the American avant-garde with the creation of his draped works. Between 1965 and 1973 Gilliam exhibited at the Jefferson Place Gallery, where Marjorie Phillips saw Red Petals in 1967 and decided to host a show of his work at The Phillips Collection. This was his first one-person museum exhibition. Gilliam has shown at various Washington galleries and taught art in the Washington public school system, the Corcoran School of Art, the Maryland Art Institute in Baltimore, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He has received a number of awards, including National Endowment for the Arts Activities Grants in 1967, 1973–1975, and 1989, and a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1971, which gave him the financial independence necessary to paint full-time. Gilliam lives and works in Washington, D.C.