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 his medium more fully into three dimensions than any other artist of his generation, and who in 1972 became the first black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, died Saturday at his home in Washington. He was 88 years old.

The 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. And as a black artist committed to abstraction, he devoted his life to paintings that refrained from the recognizable imagery and overt political messages favored by many of his colleagues. Yet his art is in many ways opposed to both painting and political art.

Mr. Gilliam came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of great experimentation for abstract painting and a time of social and political unrest 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 “‘A’ and the Carpenter, I” (1973), he stacked a large strip of canvas painted with airy clouds of pink and blue between two wooden trestles, introducing an element of manual labor into a work that looked elegant, if unfinished, and which, like much of Gilliam’s work, appeared different each time it was installed.

His 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 unsettled times. 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 massive protests against the war in Vietnam.

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

A full obituary will be published shortly.


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