Sam Gilliam, Groundbreaking Artist Who Brought Abstraction Into the Third Dimension, Dies at 88
Sam Gilliam, an influential painter whose canvases proposed new possibilities for abstraction, inspiring legions of artists, died on June 25 at 88. David Kordansky and Pace, Gilliam’s galleries, said the cause was kidney failure.
Gilliam’s abstractions are unusual in that they are often sculptural, in essence suggesting that painting need not be two-dimensional. Working by methods in which his paint was allowed to roll down his canvas on its own accord, he embraced chance and relinquished control.
“One of the things that must be a part of art, now that artists are multimedia and art is so simultaneous it’s hard to stay on a problem, is to form one’s own problem and have tenacity,” he said in a 1973 ARTnews interview.
The results have dazzled many over the years and Gilliam’s work has enjoyed 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 at the fringes of the New York–centric U.S. art world. He had always been based in Washington, D.C., where he fell in with a group of abstract artists known as the Washington Color School, and he didn’t have a New York gallery until Pace took him on 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 showed a greater openness toward folding Gilliam and other Black artists into the canon.
But Gilliam earned significant attention early on, becoming the first Black artist to show at the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1972, and he has been an influence to many artists, including Rashid Johnson, who said that Gilliam’s art helped “define my relationship to race.” Johnson even once curated a show of Gilliam’s work at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, which currently represents both artists.
“If, at some periods in his extensive career, Gilliam seemed invisible, it’s simply because people refused to see him,” Greg Allen once wrote in Art in America.
Draping, Beveling, Hanging
Gilliam’s artistic breakthrough came in the mid-1960s with his drape paintings, which appear to be liberated from the wall entirely. Splashed with bright colors, they are done on unstretched canvases that are pinched in parts because of the way they are hung, causing them to sag in certain areas. They are typically monumental in scale.
The artist himself has cited multiple origins for his drape paintings, though the one most commonly drawn on by art historians is an explanation he gave in his 1973 ARTnews interview: that they were like “clotheslines filled with clothes with so much weight that they had to be propped up.”
Gilliam also said he had pushed to make these works by Washington Color School colleagues like Kenneth Noland and Thomas Downing, and by studying famed artists of centuries past, like Albrecht Dürer.
Museums embraced the drape paintings early on, with MoMA and the Corcoran Gallery of Art showing them, though their art-historical significance is still coming into focus. When Dia:Beacon and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston jointly acquired Gilliam’s 70-foot-long, two-part painting Double Merge (1968) in 2021, the piece had never before been seen by the public.
The drape paintings were complemented by other abstractions that Gilliam made by experimental means. Starting in 1967, he began making a series of works in which he stained unstretched canvases with acrylic and allowed them to dry while they folded or crumpled. The painted patterns left behind are spattered and spectral, and Gilliam stretched the canvases and hung them on structures with beveled edges, causing the abstractions to project off the wall, into the space of the gallery.
Gilliam said that his drape paintings, some of which have portions cut away, were in part a response to shifting notions about the medium.
“When I did the drape paintings,” he said in a 1989 oral history, “I wasn’t making sculpture, I was reacting against painting.”
Dark As I Am
Gilliam’s early abstractions have thrilled critics such as Peter Schjeldahl, who praised him in the New Yorker in 2020 for “creating undulant environments that drenched the eye in effulgent color.”
“I’m so attracted, and my absolute desire to have been attracted in no way militates against his attraction’s strength,” Fred Moten wrote that same year. “He makes work I can’t get next to and can’t get out of, and though I know I’m supposed to be writing 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 whirlpool, whorl’s absolute intra-action of depth and surface.”
Some have also considered whether these works may have any relation to Gilliam’s race, a possibility which the artist himself has generally written off. “Color doesn’t matter,” he told the New York Times in 2018, speaking of race.
Still, his early abstractions have figured in shows that bore out a clear relation to race, including 1971’s “The DeLuxe Show,” which is considered the first integrated art exhibition in the U.S., and 2017’s “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” which is still traveling.
A few of his paintings come with titles that appear to allude to sociopolitical issues; in particular, ones having to do with Blackness and Black figures. One drape painting is called Three Panels for Mr. Robeson (1975), a reference to the singer Paul Robeson, whom Gilliam’s wife, Dorothy Butler, wrote a biography of. Another is titled Composed (formerly Dark as I Am), 1968–74, its name seemingly a reference to Gilliam’s own race and some of the painting’s formal concerns.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Gilliam made a series of abstractions that were named after him. But even when the works’ titles allude to the day King was shot, there are no explicit references made to the civil rights leader. Gilliam said the series of abstractions, which were folded up accordion-style and left to dry, contain “metaphors that are heraldic.”
Around the time he made these works, Gilliam had occupied a slippery relationship with the term “Black art,” which had been the subject of debate among Black artists. Some of his cohort who worked in a figurative mode did not believe that Gilliam’s art evinced a Black aesthetic because it relied on the language of abstraction, which they believed had no relation to Black life itself.
Gilliam showed at the Studio Museum in Harlem in “X to the 4th Power,” an important 1969 exhibition of abstract art by Black artists that was organized by the painter William T. Williams, and then did not appear in another show at that institution for another 13 years.
“Being black is a very important point of tension and self-discovery,” Gilliam said in his 1973 ARTnews interview. “To have a sense of self-acceptance we blacks have to throw of this dichotomy that has been forced on us by the white experience. For some there is a need to do this frontally and objectively. There are some who believe there is no threat. I think there is a need to live universally.”
Blowing Them Away
Sam Gilliam, Jr., was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933. His father was a railroad worker, his mother a schoolteacher. Not long after he was born, the family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where Gilliam later attended school at the University of Louisville. He received a degree in fine art.
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 got a master’s degree. On a teacher’s advice, he got a job teaching at a Washington, D.C. high school, 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 credited coming into contact with the Washington Color School artists as an impetus that led him toward abstraction.
While Gilliam’s abstractions from the 1960s and ’70s remain his best-known ones, he continued to produce art in the following decades. In recent years, he even branched out into sculpture, showing pyramid-shaped sculptures that were made from Japanese washi paper that was saturated in rich color.
If momentum surrounding Gilliam had slowed a bit during the ’80s and ’90s, it picked back up in 2005, when the Corcoran staged the first-ever full-scale retrospective of his art. In 2018, a Kunstmuseum Basel retrospective in Switzerland brought Gilliam positive notices and allowed his work to receive greater recognition abroad.
Gilliam, for his part, has remained humble as many more have taken note of him and his art.
“I’m going to blow them all away,” he told the New York Times in 2018 as his work headed to Art Basel.