Sam Gilliam, Abstract Artist of Drape Paintings, Dies at 88
A brilliant colorist, he hung his canvases from ceilings in great curves and loops, or pinned them, gathered, to walls, taking his medium into three dimensions.
Sam Gilliam, a pioneering abstract painter best known for his lusciously stained Drape paintings, which took his medium more fully into three-dimensions than any other artist of his generation, died on Saturday at his home in Washington. He was 88.
His death was announced by the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles and the Pace Gallery, New York. The cause was renal failure.
Mr. Gilliam was twice an anomaly. As a Black artist he was largely ignored by the upper levels of the art world until late in 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 ’70s, a period of great experimentation for abstract painting in 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 especially daring.
A brilliant colorist, he became known for emancipating his paintings from the flat rectilinearity imposed by wood stretchers. Instead, he draped his unstretched abstract canvases from ceilings in great curves and loops, or pinned them, gathered, to walls. In “‘A’ and the Carpenter, I” of 1973, he piled a great swath of canvas painted with airy clouds of pink and blue between two wooden sawhorses, introducing an element of manual labor into a work that seemed elegant, if unfinished, and that, like much of Mr. Gilliam’s work, appeared different each time it was installed.
These efforts hovered between painting and sculpture, while his techniques evoked everything from Jackson Pollock’s drips to tie-dye. They pushed the medium far beyond the wall-hung shaped canvases created at the time by Frank Stella and his followers. They were at once aggressive and lyrical, impinging on the viewer’s space and providing moments of gorgeous, flowing color while refusing a single, secure, centered point of view. And they challenged the viewer at every turn to decide: “Is this a painting?”
This in itself created a kind of visual tumult that suited the works’ unsettled times. A painting in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art is simply titled “10/27/69,” placing itself against the backdrop of a period of immense 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 referred to painting without quite embracing it influenced artists over several generations, including David Hammons, Jessica Stockholder and Rashid Johnson.
“There’s something incredibly important in Sam’s employment of improvisation that continues to influence my generation and beyond,” Mr. Johnson said in a phone interview on Monday. “It is capable of transcending race but is not limited to not discussing race. For me, he’s been a beacon of light.”
Sam Gilliam was born on Nov. 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 at an early age. When it was pointed out to his mother that he spent a lot of time quietly drawing in the dirt, she supplied him with paper and cardboard; it meant one less child to keep track of. Horses were a favorite, nearly fanatical, subject.
Raised primarily in Louisville, Ky., Mr. Gilliam received most of his formal education attending middle and high schools there that placed an unusual emphasis on art. He went on to study at the University of Louisville, where he received undergraduate and graduate degrees in painting. Throughout those years his determination to be an artist was nurtured by teachers who recognized his talent and drive. He also developed a love of jazz that would sustain him throughout his life as an innovative art form and example of Black achievement.
Mr. Gilliam moved to Washington in 1962, arriving at the moment when Color Field painting, with its reliance on bright, stained color, was just being formulated by heirs of Abstract Expressionism, there and in New York City. Always interested in the physical nature of painting, by the late 1960s he was cutting his own path through this style by, in effect, freeing his stained canvases from stretchers.
Suspended from ceilings, the works fell and rose in great curving swaths and loops, guided in part by gravity. They were at once aggressive and seductive, impinging on the viewer’s space and providing myriad, seemingly chaotic, details of paint and color.
Just before moving to Washington, Mr. Gilliam married his college girlfriend, Dorothy Butler, a journalist hired by The Washington Post and its first Black female reporter. They separated in the early 1980s. In 2018, Mr. Gilliam married Annie Gawlak, an art dealer and consultant he met in the mid-1980s. She survives him, as do three daughters from his first marriage, Stephanie Gilliam, Melissa Gilliam and Leah Franklin Gilliam; three sisters, Lizzie Jane Miller, Lillie Gilliam and Clenteria Carr, and three grandchildren.
While the Drape paintings became a signature for Mr. Gilliam, they were never an exclusive way of working, and by the mid 1970s he had moved on, returning to them in the 1980s primarily in a series of public commissions. The remainder of his career was a restless exploration of abstract painting of all kinds, in ways that sometimes seemed contradictory but that also reflected a determination to leave no stone unturned in terms of texture, color or technique.
Quilting was referenced in some works that involved scraps of found fabric; canvas was sometimes collaged onto canvas; and the addition of foreign materials like yarn and glitter was just one of his tactics. It all added up to one of the most varied careers of postwar abstraction, held together by a boldness of mind and material.
Mr. Gilliam’s work was not entirely overlooked in New York’s mostly white art world, but his career centered on Washington, where, starting in 1963, he exhibited regularly and repeatedly with galleries and had several museum shows, beginning with one at the Phillips Collection in 1967 and including a retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2005.
He also had sustained relationships with galleries across the country, from Philadelphia to San Francisco and from Chicago to Houston. While he had several solo shows in New York between 1968 and 1991, they were almost never with the same gallery. Shockingly to many, after 1991 he did not have a gallery solo show in New York until 2017, when the Mnuchin Gallery mounted one, exhibiting works from 1967 to 1973, although he did have a Projects exhibition at the Modern in 1971 and a small survey at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1982.
But throughout, Mr. Gilliam, a tall man with unusually intense eyes, was content to remain in Washington, apart from the flashier centers of American art. In a Smithsonian oral history interview in 1989, he said: “I’ve learned the difference between what is really good and real for me and what is something that I dreamed would be real and good for me. I’ve learned to — I don’t mean to say I’ve learned to love this — but I’ve learned to accept this, the matter of staying here.”
Correction: June 28, 2022
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the surname of Mr. Gilliam’s wife, who survives him. She is Annie Gawlak, not Gawluk.