Sam Gilliam, who profoundly reshaped the idea of painting by liberating the canvas from the frame and rendering it in three dimensions, died of kidney disease at his home in Washington, DC, June 25 at the age of eighty-eight. The news was confirmed jointly by Pace Gallery and David Kordansky Gallery, which represent the artist. During a career that spanned seven decades, Gilliam first gained broad recognition in the 1960s and early ’70s for his Beveled-edge paintings and his Drape works, the former featuring canvas that the artist painted with abstract designs before stretching it across a beveled-edge frame, and the latter comprising vibrantly hued swaths of canvas tacked in swooping waves to the wall, crumpled on the floor, or hanging in space. These works, critic Ara Osterweil wrote in Artforum in 2019, “dare us to abandon our preconceptions of how things must be.”
Sam Gilliam was born November 30, 1933, in Tupelo, Mississippi, the seventh of eight children. His mother was a seamstress and his father worked for the railroad as a carpenter. Intensely interested in drawing at an early age, he moved with his family during World War II to Louisville, eventually earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in creative art from the University of Louisville. Shortly after receiving the latter, in 1961, he moved to Washington, DC, where he took a job as an art instructor at a technical high school. The Washington Color School was in ascendancy in the city then, and though Gilliam was never officially affiliated with the movement, which was devoted to the use of pure hue, it had an undeniable influence on his work, which during this time moved away from figuration and toward abstraction.
In the late 1960s, seeking to set himself apart from other abstractionists, he began experimenting with shaped canvases and then abandoned the stretcher altogether. In 1969, his massive, paint-spattered, free-form works were exhibited at the the now-shuttered Corcoran Gallery of Art, garnering wide notice and kickstarting a career that saw his visibility rise and fall, with the artist finally enjoying sustained global acclaim in the last years of his life. Gilliam in 1972 was the first Black artist to exhibit in the US Pavilion of the Venice Biennale; despite this, and almost certainly because he was working in a field dominated by white men, he would have trouble for decades gaining the attention of critics. Gilliam continued to innovate apace, in the 1980s developing his Quilt paintings, for which he snipped canvas into geometric shapes, rearranging these into abstract patterns; his recent large-scale paintings incorporate paper and wood.
Gilliam’s work is held in the collection of a number of major arts institutions around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Museum of Modern Art, all in New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Menil Collection, Houston; Tate Modern, London; the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark; and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Among his numerous major site-specific public commissions are Yet Do I Marvel, 2106, on view in the lobby of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC, and the colossal Drape painting Yves Klein Blue, 2017, presented at the Giardini’s main pavilion at the Fifty-Seventh Venice Biennale. A retrospective of his work, “Sam Gilliam: Full Circle,” is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, through September 11. His monumental work Double Merge, 1968, remains on display at Dia: Beacon, in upstate New York.
Gilliam continued to work right to the end of his life, and though his oeuvre largely elides explicitly political work, he remained a firm believer in art’s capacity to speak truth to power, even in the face of tremendous adversity. “To me,” he told Artforum in 2017, “art is about moving outside of traditional ways of thinking. It’s about artists generating their own modes of working. We need to continue to think about the whole of what art is, what it does. Even though my work is not overtly political, I believe art has the ability to call attention to politics and to remind us of this potential through its presence.”