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Gilliam was an activist himself. He took part in the March on Washington in 1963—“we got close to the Lincoln Memorial,” he recalled. Later, he co-organized “The Deluxe Show,” a 1971 exhibition in Houston that may have been the first in the U.S. to show the work of black and white artists together. Major art collectors John and Dominique de Menil supported the exhibition, which was presented in the city’s dilapidated Deluxe Theater. Alongside Kenneth Noland and painter , Gilliam helped curate the show that included artists ranging from to , to .
Living in Washington for decades, Gilliam has long been surrounded by an intense political climate. He remembers the “romantic involvement” that surrounded John F. Kennedy’s presidency and says that the Trump administration is great for making an artist want to get away from politics and do other things. Withdrawing into the studio isn’t an escape for him, but a way of “building beyond this time.” In their own way, Gilliam said, “artists always deal with drama. They get caught up.” Instead of wreckage and linear history, he’ll leave behind works of beauty that offer an alternate story about his time.
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