The Power of Art

Work by renowned African-American painter Sam Gilliam joins permanent collection at Tufts Art Gallery

“FOLD XII,” by Sam Gilliam, 2014.

The title of the painting FOLD XII could be interpreted as a command. That’s because this brightly colored work on handmade paper, encased behind two-dimensional glass, was created by an artist celebrated for releasing canvases from stretcher and frame, folding and twisting them into organic, three-dimensional sculptures.

Created by renowned African-American painter Sam Gilliam, FOLD XII was recently acquired by Tufts and is currently on display in the Directed Looking Gallery—an exhibition space in the Tufts Art Gallery that challenges viewers to develop their visual literacy through firsthand encounters with artwork and artifacts. It’s a fitting spot for FOLD XII, since so much history of both art and the African-American experience unfolds through an exploration of the life and work of the artist.

Gilliam, 82, painted FOLD XII in 2014, and this fall also completed a commissioned work for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Yet Do I Marvel, five colorful, glassy-varnished panels spanning 28 feet, greets visitors entering the lobby of the new museum, which opened in September on the National Mall.

Born in 1933 in Tupelo, Mississippi, Gilliam was the seventh of eight children. At age 9, he moved with his family to Kentucky, and went on to earn a bachelor’s in fine arts from the University of Louisville in 1955. He followed his wife, a teacher who took a job with the Washington, D.C., public schools, to the nation’s capital, where he became part of the abstract art movement known as the Washington Color School.

Color School artists explored abstract expression within large, solid areas of paint. But it wasn’t long before Gilliam began to experiment outside the lines of this discipline by “emancipating” his canvases, as one critic described it. Freeing the canvases of their frames, Gilliam invented a new art form called “drape painting.” The paintings, sometimes gigantic, have often been commissioned for indoor and outdoor installations, draped across building facades, or neatly twisted into couture-like figures.

Gilliam’s work is also associated with the Lyrical Abstraction and Color Field movements. But over his five-decade career, he has dipped in and out of one established form to another, transcending them all in his unique way.

“To create a body of work that commands respect through the ages is to tap a truth that you know personally,” Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Boston-based Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, told the packed Tufts Art Gallery at the Oct. 21 unveiling of FOLD XII. “That cannot be the product of a formula. It cannot be the result of a social definition. It must derive from within the self.”

Gaither is far from alone in his praise of the artist. Gilliam was included in the American Pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale, and his works are part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Tate Modern in London. The Corcoran Gallery gave him a major retrospective in 2005. In 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presented him with the State Department’s first Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.

He is also a passionate educator, having taught in the Washington, D.C., public schools and at the Maryland Institute College of Art, the University of Maryland and Carnegie Mellon.

“I find all of these achievements and accomplishments mind-blowing and amazingly impressive,” said Lauren Haynes, curator of contemporary art at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, at the Tufts unveiling. “They are extremely well deserved. But for me, Gilliam’s significance lies in how he inspires younger generations of artists and continues to overwhelm art history majors. He gives an example of how there is no one way to be an artist, and there is no age limit to creativity.”

Bringing FOLD XII to the Tufts permanent collection was made possible through the generosity of Maurice S. Segal, A28, M32, A65P. “My father loved Tufts, and he loved art, and he would have been proud to know that he played a role in bringing this great work to Tufts,” said Peter Segal, A65.

The addition of the painting comes as Tufts is reaffirming its commitment to the arts with its recent acquisition of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. It is the country’s only art school that is affiliated with a world-class museum and is also part of a major research university.

“I commend Tufts on the acquisition of this wonderful work, because by its acquisition, at least two things are done,” Gaither said. “We begin to provide the much richer, broader picture of American production over the 20th century in every forum where it is a topic, and we also get the opportunity to honor the heroism of a deeply creative artist who believed in his dream, built from it and shared it with us.”

The Tufts Art Gallery is located at 40 Talbot Ave. on the university’s Medford/Somerville campus. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday until 8 p.m. For more information, visit

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