Draped painting abstract artist Sam Gilliam dies at 88

Sam Gilliam, a pioneering abstract painter best known for his brightly coloured draping paintings, which more fully brought his medium into three dimensions than any other artist of his time, he published last week. Six died at their home in Washington. He is 88 years old.

David Kordanski Gallery in Los Angeles and Pace Gallery in New York announced his death. The reason is kidney failure.

Mr. Gilliam was two exceptions. As a black artist until the latter part of his career, he was largely ignored by the upper echelons of the art world (although in 1972 he became the first black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale). A black artist devoted to abstraction, he devoted his life to painting, eschewing the recognizable imagery and overt political messages favored by many of his black colleagues. However, in many ways his art was as usual against painting and political art.

Mr. Gilliam came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of great experimentation in abstract painting during political and social unrest, the Vietnam War, and the struggle of blacks for civil rights. But even under the circumstances, he was particularly bold.

He was an accomplished colorist, known for liberating his paintings from the flat linearity imposed by wooden stretchers. Instead, he hung unstretched abstract canvases from the ceiling in huge curves and loops, or pinned and gathered them to the wall. In ‘A’ and the Carpenter, I, 1973, he introduced an element of manual labor by stacking a large canvas painted with pink and blue clouds between two wooden sawhorses. A seemingly elegant but unfinished piece, and, like many of Mr. Gilliam’s works, looks different with each installation.

These efforts hover between painting and sculpture, and his technique evokes everything from Jackson Pollock’s drips to tie-dye. They took the medium far beyond the wall-mounted canvases created at the time by Frank Stella and his followers. Both radical and lyrical, they impact the viewer’s space, offering moments of gorgeous, flowing color while rejecting a single, secure, central point of view. They challenge the viewer at every turn: “Is this a painting?”

This in itself creates a visual chaos befitting of the work’s turbulent times. A painting in the MoMA collection is simply titled “October 27, 69,” placing it in the context of a period of mass protests against the Vietnam War.

“The expressive act of making a marker and hanging it in space is always political,” Mr. Gilliam said in a 2018 interview with José da Silva for Art Newspaper. “My work is both formal and political.”

Mr. Gilliam’s use of unstretched fabric to refer to painting, but not fully embraced it, has influenced generations of artists, including David Hammons, Jessica Stockholder and Rashid Johnson.

“There’s something very important about Sam’s improvisation that continues to affect people of my generation and beyond,” Mr. Johnson said in a phone interview on Monday. “It’s able to transcend race, but it’s not limited to not discussing race. For me, he’s a beacon.”

Sam Gilliam was born on November 30, 1933 in Tupelo, Mississippi, the seventh of eight children. His father, also named Sam, was a farmer. His mother, Estery Gilliam, was a tailor and housewife. Sam showed an interest in drawing from an early age. When someone pointed out to his mother that he spent a lot of time quietly drawing in the dirt, she gave him paper and cardboard; it meant one less child to follow. Horses are the most popular, almost fanatical subject.

Mr. Gilliam grew up primarily in Louisville, Kentucky, where he received most of his formal education, where middle and high schools place a strong emphasis on the arts. He went on to study at the University of Louisville, where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in painting. During those years, his determination to become an artist was nurtured by teachers who recognized his talent and drive. He also developed a keen interest in jazz that would make him a lifelong example of an innovative art form and black achievement.

Mr. Gilliam moved to Washington in 1962, at a time when Color Field painting, which relied on bright, stained colors, had just been formulated locally and in New York City by the successors of Abstract Expressionism. Always interested in the physical nature of painting, by the late 1960s he forged his own path through this style, literally liberating his stained canvases from the stretcher.

Suspended from the ceiling, the pieces fall and rise in the form of giant curved strips and loops, guided in part by gravity. Aggressive and seductive, they slam into the viewer’s space and provide countless seemingly chaotic details of paint and color.

Just before moving to Washington, Mr. Gilliam married his college girlfriend Dorothy Butler, a reporter hired by the Washington Post and the paper’s first black female reporter. They separated in the early 1980s. In 2018, Mr. Gilliam married Annie Gawluk, an art dealer and consultant he met in the mid-1980s. She survived, as did his three daughters from his first marriage, Stephanie Gilliam, Melissa Gilliam, and Leah Franklin Gilliam; three sisters, Lizzie Jane Miller, Lily Gilliam and Crenteria Carr, and three grandchildren.

While the drape paintings became Mr Gilliam’s signature, they were never an exclusive method of working, and by the mid-1970s he moved on, returning them mainly in a series of public commissions in the 1980s. The rest of his career has been a relentless exploration of abstract painting of all kinds, in a sometimes seemingly contradictory way that also reflects a determination to leave no stone unturned in texture, colour or technique.

Quilting is referenced in some works that involve finding pieces of fabric; canvas is sometimes collaged on canvas; and adding foreign objects such as yarn and glitter is just one of his strategies. This all makes up one of the most diverse professions of postwar abstraction, united by bold ideas and materials.

Mr. Gilliam’s work was not entirely ignored in New York’s predominantly white art world, but his career was centered on Washington, where he exhibited regularly and repeatedly at galleries and held Several museum exhibitions, first at the Phillips Collection in 1967, including a retrospective at the Corcoran Art Gallery in 2005.

He also has longstanding relationships with galleries across the country, from Philadelphia to San Francisco and Chicago to Houston. Although he had several solo exhibitions in New York between 1968 and 1991, it was almost never in the same gallery. To the shock of many, after 1991 he did not have a solo gallery show in New York until 2017, when the Mnuchin Gallery held an exhibition of work from 1967 to 1973, although he did show at Modern in 1971. The Projects exhibition and a small survey were held at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1982.

But throughout, Mr. Gilliam, a tall man with an unusually sharp eye, was content to stay in Washington, far from the center of American art. In a 1989 Smithsonian oral history interview, he said, “I’ve learned the difference between what’s really good and true for me and what I dream of is true and good for me. The difference. I’ve learned — I’m not saying I’ve learned to like this — but I’ve learned to accept this, the problem that’s here to stay.”

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