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Sam Gilliam Was a Black Lifer DC Artist. I Wanted to Be Like Him.

Beauty Pill's singer remembers his former neighbor.

Photograph of Sam Gilliam by Fredrik Nilsen Studio. Courtesy the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

The abstract-art pioneer Sam Gilliam died Saturday at his home in DC. Beauty Pill frontman Chad Clark remembers his former neighbor and inspiration.

By wild fortuitous luck, for a couple years, Sam Gilliam’s art studio was adjacent to my music studio at 14th and U streets, Northwest. I would be lying to claim that we became close friends or that I can recall any sage advice he gave me. I mostly held his art in awe, and I tried to not disturb him. I usually only played music loud at night when I knew he had gone home for the day.

You Blue Moon, 2021. Acrylic and mixed media on panel in beveled frame; 60 × 60 × 4 in. (152.4 × 152.4 × 10.2 cm). Courtesy of Jeffrey Pechter. © 2022 Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Ron Blunt.

I imagined a mystical connection between us. I was half his age, but he was everything I wanted to be. A Black lifer DC artist and innovator with wildly colorful and influential works. I know I’m not a painter, but if you listen to the sound vistas of “Afrikaner Barista” and “Ann the Word,” I believe you can feel the influence of Sam Gilliam. Vivid color! Wide! Huge! Detailed!

Sam Gilliam, Light Depth, 1969. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art. Gift from the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund), 2018.

Though Sam became a global art legend, he never moved to London or New York or Paris or Berlin. He was a DC motherfucker. This was inspiring to me. I don’t know if he conceived of himself as “bringing honor to the city,” but that is precisely what he did.

Lucky, 2021. Acrylic and mixed media on panel in beveled frame; 60 × 60 × 4 in. (152.4 × 152.4 × 10.2 cm). Courtesy of the artist. © 2022 Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Ron Blunt.

I kinda wanted to LOOK like him, honestly. He radiated intensity and confidence and focus. His clothes weren’t flamboyant, but everything about him was stylish. All the time. Effortlessly. I tried to absorb his greatness osmotically. This is the most arrogant thing I have ever done. I’m no fucking Sam Gilliam.

There was only one.

You can see some of Gilliam’s works at the Hirshhorn’s exhibition “Sam Gilliam: Full Circle,” which runs to September 11. Beauty Pill’s most recent single is “Instant Night.” 

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