Sam Gilliam’s Legacy Now Includes an Annual $75,000 Artist Award

The late painter's estate has partnered with the Dia Art Foundation to offer the kind of grant that helped Gilliam's artistic career flourish.

A donation from the estate of Sam Gilliam, the late painter known for his innovations in color field painting and abstract expressionism, will establish the art world’s newest international prize. Launched by the Dia Art Foundation, it will run for ten years with selected artists receiving a $75,000 award.

Man holds two paint brushes up while crossing arms
Sam Gilliam was a pioneering member of the Washington Color School. Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Winners will also present a public program at Dia, a nonprofit focused on preserving the vision of artists. The inaugural recipient will be chosen in early 2024 by a panel of five jurors selecting from among nominees on a long list assembled by invited international nominators. “The Sam Gilliam Award will be granted yearly to a single artist, residing anywhere in the world, who has made such a significant contribution to any medium of art and for whom receiving the award would be transformative,” according to Dia.

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Such accolades were certainly transformative for Gilliam,whose career took off in the 1960s in Washington, D.C., when he became part of the burgeoning Washington Color School art movement and its exploration of color fields. Over the years, he received numerous grants from the National Endowment of Arts, the Longview Foundation Award, the Art Institute of Chicago’s Norman W. Harris Prize and the Guggenheim Fellowship. “Having received awards himself, at several pivotal moments in his career—which allowed Sam to establish a studio, leave his teaching position and create a home for his family—the wide-reaching impact of these forms of support and recognition were truly appreciated by Sam and by those most important to him,” said Annie Gawlak, Gilliam’s widow, in a statement.

Additionally, the painter had a personal connection to Dia. In 2019, he rearranged two 1968 paintings to create Double Merge, a suspended installation of draped canvases for the foundation’s museum in Beacon, New York, that Dia eventually acquired in 2021. Gilliam’s work has also been showcased at solo exhibitions at institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Phillips Collection.

He continued to innovate with different mediums throughout his career, experimenting with drapery, beveled-edged paintings and tondos. At the time of his death in June 2022, the Gilliam was represented by Pace Gallery in New York and David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles.

Gallery with three blue paintings hanging on white walls
An installation view of Sam Gilliam: The Last Five Years at Pace Gallery. Courtesy Pace Gallery

On view now: an exhibition celebrating Gilliam’s last five years of work

Artwork created by Gilliam during the final years of his life are currently at Pace’s Chelsea gallery in a show titled “Sam Gilliam: The Last Five Years” featuring beveled paintings and tondos created between 2018 and 2022. It will be followed by a second exhibition at David Kordansky next year. “You can sense the kind of fury to make these pictures at the end of his life,” said Arne Glimcher, the gallery’s founder, during a preview of the exhibition.

Glimcher, who first met Gilliam in 1972, also recounted attempting to convince the painter to exhibit at his gallery nearly a decade ago. Sitting across from each other in the painter’s studio, Glimcher embarked on a lengthy pep talk until Gilliam held up his hands to stop the speech. “Are you asking me a question?” he asked the gallerist, who answered in the affirmative. “The answer is yes,” said Gilliam.

His affiliation with Pace eventually blossomed into a friendship between the two art figures. “That was the beginning of this incredible relationship that we both had late in our careers,” recalled Glimcher.

Sam Gilliam’s Legacy Now Includes an Annual $75,000 Artist Award