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Revolutionary painter dies at 88 –

By on June 27, 2022 0

Sam Gilliam, an influential painter whose canvases offered new possibilities for abstraction, inspiring legions of artists, died on June 25 at age 88. David Kordansky and Pace, Gilliam Galleries, said the cause was kidney failure.

Gilliam’s abstractions are unusual in that they are often sculptural, essentially suggesting that painting need not be two-dimensional. Working by methods in which his paint was allowed to roll across its canvas on its own, he embraced chance and gave up control.

“One of the things that has to be part of art, now that artists are multi-media and art is so simultaneous that it’s hard to stay on a problem, is to form your own problem and ‘have tenacity,’ he said in a 1973 ART news interview.

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The results have dazzled many over the years and Gilliam’s work has seen a late-career rise, with his work appearing in major institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Dia:Beacon, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland.

There has been a tendency to suggest that Gilliam existed on the fringes of the New York-centric American art world. He was always based in Washington, D.C., where he met a group of abstract artists known as the Washington Color School, and he didn’t have a gallery in New York until Pace hired him in 2019.

He was also a black abstract painter who gained traction with critics at a time when the field was still dominated by white men. Only recently have mainstream museums like MoMA shown greater openness to bringing Gilliam and other black artists into the canon.

But Gilliam caught the eye early on, becoming the first black artist to exhibit in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1972, and he influenced many artists, including Rashid Johnson, who has said that Gilliam’s art helped “define my relationship to race.” Johnson even once held an exhibition of Gilliam’s work at the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, which currently represents both artists.

“If, at certain periods of his long career, Gilliam seemed invisible, it was simply because people refused to see him,” wrote Greg Allen in Art in America.

A multicolored abstraction on unstretched canvas that is hung on the wall by three knots at the top.

Sam Giliam, 10/27/691969
Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, and Pace Gallery/Photo Fredrik Nilsen/Museum of Modern Art

Draped, Beveled, Suspended

Gilliam’s artistic breakthrough came in the mid-1960s with his draped paintings, which appear to be freed from the wall entirely. Splashed with vibrant colors, they are done on unstretched canvas that is pinched in places due to the way it is hung, causing it to sag in places. They are usually on a monumental scale.

The artist himself has cited several origins for his draped paintings, although the one art historians draw most inspiration from is an explanation he gave in his 1973 ART news interview: that they were like “clotheslines full of clothes with so much weight that they had to be propped up”.

Gilliam also said he was prompted to make these works by colleagues at the Washington Color School like Kenneth Noland and Thomas Downing, and by studying famous artists of past centuries, like Albrecht Dürer.

Museums adopted draped paintings early on, with MoMA and the Corcoran Gallery of Art showing them, although their historical and artistic significance is still a focus. When Dia:Beacon and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston jointly acquired Gilliam’s 70-foot-long two-part painting Dual fusion (1968) in 2021, the piece had never been seen by the public.

The draped paintings were supplemented by other abstractions that Gilliam made by experimental means. From 1967 he began to produce a series of works in which he dyed unstretched canvases with acrylics and left them to dry while they bent or creased. The painted patterns left behind are splashy and spectral, and Gilliam stretched the canvases and hung them on beveled edge structures, causing the abstractions to project from the wall, into the gallery space.

Gilliam said her draped paintings, some of which have parts cut away, were partly a response to changing notions about the medium.

“When I did the drape paintings,” he said in a 1989 oral history, “I wasn’t doing sculpture, I was reacting against painting.”

An abstract painting in the shape of a flower.

Sam Giliam, Fan enthusiasm1973.
©Sam Gilliam/2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery

Dark as I am

Gilliam’s early abstractions delighted critics such as Peter Schjeldahl, who rented it in the New Yorker in 2020 to “create undulating environments that flood the eye with vibrant color”.

“I am so attracted, and my absolute desire to have been attracted does nothing to militate against the strength of his attraction”, Fred Moten wrote that same year. “He does work that I can’t access and get out of, and while I know I’m supposed to write something that you can get something out of, I want you to know that if you don’t get anything out of it, it’s not your fault It’s my fault, though it’s all Gilliam’s fault – his fault being more of a maelstrom, an irresistible whirlwind, the absolute intra-action the depth and surface of the spiral.

Some have also wondered if these works might have any connection to Gilliam’s race, a possibility the artist himself has generally dismissed. “The color doesn’t matter,” he told the New York Times in 2018, speaking of race.

Yet his early abstractions featured in exhibits that made a clear connection to race, including 1971’s “The DeLuxe Show,” considered the first integrated art show in the United States, and “Soul of a Nation: 2017’s Art in the Age” of Black Power”, which is still traveling.

Some of his paintings bear titles that seem to allude to socio-political issues; in particular, those having to do with darkness and black figures. A draped painting is called Three panels for Mr. Robeson (1975), a reference to singer Paul Robeson, about whom Gilliam’s wife, Dorothy Butler, wrote a biography. Another is titled Compound (formerly Dark as I Am)1968-1974, its name seems to refer to Gilliam’s own race and some of the formal concerns of the painting.

Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Gilliam produced a series of abstractions that bear his name. But even when the titles of the works allude to the day King was shot, no explicit reference is made to the civil rights leader. Gilliam said the series of abstractions, accordion-folded and left to dry, contain “heraldic metaphors”.

During the time he made these works, Gilliam had had a slippery relationship with the term “black art”, which had been debated among black artists. Some of his cohort who worked in a figurative mode did not believe that Gilliam’s art exhibited a black aesthetic because it relied on the language of abstraction, which they claimed had nothing to do with the black life itself.

Gilliam showed at the Studio Museum in Harlem in “X to the 4th Power,” a major exhibition of abstract art by black artists organized in 1969 by painter William T. Williams, then did not appear in another exhibition by this institution for another 13 years.

“Being black is a very important point of tension and self-discovery,” Gilliam said in his 1973 ART news interview. “To have a sense of self-acceptance, we black people need to get rid of this dichotomy that has been imposed on us by the experience of white people. For some, it is necessary to do it in a frontal and objective way. There are those who believe that there is no threat. I think there is a need to live universally.”

A museum façade adorned with three draped abstractions.

Sam Giliam, Seahorses1975.
Photo Johansen Krause/Courtesy of the artist, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, and Pace Gallery

Blow them

Sam Gilliam, Jr., was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933. His father was a railroad worker, his mother a schoolteacher. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where Gilliam later attended school at the University of Louisville. He earned a degree in fine arts.

After college, Gilliam served in the United States Army for several years, and once he left in 1958, he returned to the University of Louisville, where he earned a master’s degree. On the advice of a teacher, he got a job teaching at a high school in Washington, D.C., one of the few professions that could lead a black artist to success at the time.

Initially, Gilliam had worked in a figurative mode, but he credits contact with the artists of the Washington Color School as an impetus that led him towards abstraction.

While Gilliam’s abstractions of the 1960s and 1970s remain his best known, he continued to produce art in the decades that followed. In recent years, he has even branched out into sculpture, showing pyramid-shaped sculptures made from Japanese washi paper saturated with rich colors.

If the momentum surrounding Gilliam had slowed down a bit during the 80s and 90s, it picked up again in 2005, when the Corcoran staged the first-ever large-scale retrospective of his art. In 2018, a retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland brought positive reviews to Gilliam and allowed his work to receive greater recognition abroad.

Gilliam, for his part, remained humble as many others took notice of him and his art.

“I’m going to blow them all up,” he told the New York Times in 2018 as his work headed towards Art Basel.