Sam Gilliam, abstract artist of draped paintings, dies at 88

Sam Gilliam, a pioneering abstract painter best known for his richly colored Drape paintings, which took on his medium more fully in three dimensions than any other artist of his generation, died Saturday at his home in Washington. He was 88 years old.

His death was announced by the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles and the Pace Gallery in New York. The cause was kidney failure.

Mr. Gilliam was twice an anomaly. As a black artist he was largely ignored by the upper levels of the art world until the end of his career (although in 1972 he became the first black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale). And as a black artist committed to abstraction, he devoted his life to paintings that refrained from the recognizable images and overt political messages favored by many of his black colleagues. Yet his art was in many ways opposed to both painting and political art as usual.

Mr. Gilliam came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of great experimentation for abstract painting at a time of political and social turmoil, amid the Vietnam War and the black struggle for civil rights. But even in this context, he was particularly daring.

Brilliant colourist, he made a name for himself for emancipating himself from the flat rectilinearity imposed by wooden frames. Instead, he draped his unstretched abstract canvases from the ceilings in sweeping curves and loops, or pinned them, gathered, to the walls. In 1973’s “‘A’ and the Carpenter, I” he stacked a large strip of canvas painted with airy clouds of pink and blue between two wooden trestles, introducing an element of handwork into a work that looked elegant, if unfinished, and which, like much of Mr. Gilliam’s work, appeared different each time it was installed.

These efforts oscillated between painting and sculpture, while his techniques evoked everything from Jackson Pollock drips to tie-dye. They took the medium far beyond the shaped wall canvases created at the time by Frank Stella and his followers. They were both aggressive and lyrical, encroaching on the viewer’s space and providing beautiful, flowing moments of color while denying a single, safe, and centered point of view. And they challenged the viewer at every turn to decide, “Is this a painting?

That in itself created a sort of visual tumult that suited the works’ volatile era. A painting in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art is simply titled “10/27/69”, set against the backdrop of a period of huge protests against the war in Vietnam.

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

Mr. Gilliam’s use of unstretched fabric that referenced painting without quite embracing it influenced artists across generations, including David Hammons, Jessica Stockholder and Rashid Johnson.

“There is something incredibly important about Sam’s job of improvisation that continues to influence my generation and beyond,” Mr Johnson said in a telephone interview on Monday. “He is able to transcend race but is not limited to not discussing race. For me, he was a beacon of light.

Sam Gilliam was born November 30, 1933 in Tupelo Miss., the seventh of eight children. His father, also named Sam, was a farmer; his mother, Estery Gilliam, was a seamstress and homemaker. Sam showed an interest in drawing from an early age. When it was pointed out to his mother that he spent a lot of time drawing quietly in the dirt, she provided him with paper and cardboard; that meant one less child to watch. Horses were a favorite, almost fanatical subject.

Raised primarily in Louisville, Kentucky, Mr. Gilliam received most of his formal education at middle and high schools that placed an unusual emphasis on art. He then attended the University of Louisville, where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in painting. Throughout these years, his determination to be an artist was nurtured by teachers who recognized his talent and drive. He also developed a lifelong love of jazz that would sustain him as an innovative art form and example of black achievement.

Mr. Gilliam moved to Washington in 1962, arriving just as Color Field painting, based on bright, colorful colors, had just been formulated by the heirs of Abstract Expressionism there and in New York. Always interested in the physical nature of painting, by the late 1960s he was forging his way through this style by actually freeing his stained canvases from stretchers.

Suspended from the ceilings, the works fell and rose in large curved bands and loops, guided in part by gravity. They were both aggressive and seductive, encroaching on the viewer’s space and providing a myriad of seemingly chaotic paint and color detail.

While Drape paintings became a signature for Mr. Gilliam, they were never an exclusive way of working, and by the mid-1970s he had evolved, returning to them in the 1980s mostly in a series of public commissions . The rest of his career is an incessant exploration of abstract painting of all kinds, sometimes in a contradictory way, but which also reflects a desire to neglect nothing in terms of texture, color or technique.

Quilting has been referenced in some works that involved found scraps of fabric; the canvas was sometimes glued to the canvas; and adding foreign materials like yarn and sequins was just one of his tactics. It all added up to one of the most varied careers in post-war abstraction, maintained by a boldness of spirit and material.

Mr. Gilliam’s work was not entirely overlooked in New York’s predominantly white art world, but his career centered in Washington, where, from 1963, he exhibited regularly and at several occasions with galleries and has had several museum exhibitions, beginning with one at the Phillips Collection in 1967 and including a retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2005.

He also maintained sustained relationships with galleries across the country, from Philadelphia to San Francisco and Chicago to Houston. Although he had several personal exhibitions in New York between 1968 and 1991, they were almost never with the same gallery. Surprisingly to many, after 1991 he didn’t have a solo gallery show in New York until 2017 when the Mnuchin Gallery mounted one, exhibiting work from 1967 to 1973, although he had a Projects exhibition at Modern in 1971 and a small survey at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1982.

But all along, Mr. Gilliam, a tall man with exceptionally intense eyes, was content to stay in Washington, away from the glitziest centers of American art. In a 1989 Smithsonian oral history interview, he said, “I learned the difference between what is really good and real for me and what I dreamed would be real and good for me. I learned to – I don’t mean I learned to like it – but I learned to accept it, staying here.

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