Sam Gilliam, whose draping, color-drenched canvases insisted on the radical potential of abstraction, died at the age of 88 this Saturday, June 25. The cause was kidney failure. The news was confirmed by Pace and David Kordansky, the two galleries that jointly represent the artist.
Emerging at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a time when many Black American artists harnessed figuration to represent their reality and spur social change, Gilliam did not just pursue non-representational art but managed to turn it on its head. Inspired in part by women he saw hanging laundry on clotheslines from his studio window, he freed the canvas from the stretcher for his pivotal “Drape” paintings, suspending them from the ceiling or on the wall in sensual configurations that embrace the organic folds of fabric. It was the zenith of American postwar painting: Abstract Expressionism, the New York School, and the Color Field movement collided in a frenzy of drips, splashes, and egos, mostly those of a rather male and White coterie of artists. Gilliam, along with contemporaries like Howardena Pindell and Alma Thomas, made their mark on the medium while asserting the creative autonomy of Black artists in the United States.
Gilliam was born in the Mississippi city of Tupelo in 1933 but spent his childhood in Kentucky, where he discovered the joy of painting as early as elementary school. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Louisville and had his very first exhibition at the school before he was drafted into the US Army in 1956. Two years later, upon discharge, he returned to Louisville to complete an MFA.
But it was in Washington, DC, where he relocated in 1962, that Gilliam hit his stride. (The move was prompted by his wife, Dorothy Butler, who got a job at the Washington Post, becoming the first Black American woman to be hired as a reporter by the paper.) Eschewing the intense figurative style of the German Expressionists who influenced his early works, mostly depictions of Black subjects, the artist veered decidedly in the direction of abstraction. During his lifetime, Gilliam often cited the work of the Washington Color School, particularly the stain paintings of Thomas Downing, as paving the way for this shift; he quickly began his own experiments, folding, taping, and saturating canvas to achieve his expansive colorscapes and eventually ditching the stretcher altogether in the mid-1960s. Among his most impactful works in this vein was his 1975 “Seahorse” for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a six-part painting featuring hundreds of feet of stained canvas.
“Each painting of Gilliam’s is like a tidal occurrence, something naturally wafting to the shore of your vision and out again, but never quite still, never settled,” wrote critic Seph Rodney for Hyperallergic.
Gilliam further explored the sculptural possibilities of painting through his beveled-edge or “Slice” works, involving unprimed canvas dyed and stretched over a custom-made frame that gave his pieces a hovering, object-like quality. His knack for innovation didn’t stop there: In the 1980s, he made “quilted” paintings evocative of the patchwork quilts he grew up with, and his most recent works incorporated metal frames. At the heart of his production is a preoccupation with improvisation, cultivated through a deep appreciation of blues and jazz.
“My drape paintings are never hung the same way twice,” Gilliam once said. “The composition is always present, but one must let things go, be open to improvisation, spontaneity, what’s happening in a space while one works.”
In 1972, Gilliam became the first Black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. Despite this and other accolades, his work remained commercially undervalued in comparison with that of his White counterparts until recent years. In 2019, at the age of 85, Gilliam joined the roster of Pace Gallery, securing representation by a New York gallery for the first time in his career. A comprehensive retrospective, Sam Gilliam: Full Circle, is currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC through September 11.