Sam Gilliam obituary

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One day in 1968, Sam Gilliam was leaning out of his studio window in Washington DC as a neighbour hung her washing. The painter, who has died aged 88, was bewitched by how the damp material sagged under its own weight, and the clothes and sheets billowed from the clothesline in the wind. What if he could make the canvases of his abstract paintings do something similar?

Gilliam was already beginning to make a name for himself as part of the so-called Washington Color School, a group of painters united in their interest in abstract works that juxtaposed solid blocks of colour. Now he sought something freer. His “drape” works saw him first remove the stretcher from his paintings, mixing his vibrant tones not with a brush but by pouring and flinging it across the loose canvas. Once it had dried, Gilliam would knot and tie the painted material into concertinaed and scrunched forms. The abstract work, which hovered between painting and sculpture, would then be hung from the gallery ceiling or might fall like a curtain from the walls. Carousel State (1968) hangs from five knotted points, the resulting creases adding shadows and folds to the painted puddles of acid pink and watery yellow and blue.

“The liquidity of the colours was reinforced by the fluidity of the canvas. Paint and surface took on an added, third-dimensional reality,” Gilliam said. “Now the canvas was not only the means to, but a primary part of, the object. The suspended paintings began by celebrating the working process and ended with the involvement of the wall, the floor and the ceiling.”

These works brought him acclaim, with critics comparing his innovation to that of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. In 1971 Gilliam had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which included a vast twisted banner that reached across the galleries. The following year he was one of a group of artists to represent the US at the Venice Biennale, the first black person to do so.

Yet the attention did not last. In 1980 he was included in a show titled Afro-American Abstraction, which toured American institutions and, while occasional works such as April 4 (1969), a bloody red canvas marking the assassination of Martin Luther King, and Three Panels for Mr Robeson (1975), a huge gallery-filling drape, made explicit reference to black history, both art institutions and the black power movement appeared troubled by a black artist seemingly uninterested in questions of his own identity.

“Figurative art,” Gilliam rebuked his critics, “doesn’t represent blackness any more than a non-narrative media-oriented kind of painting, like what I do.”

Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Sam Gilliam Sr, a truck driver, and Estery (nee Cousin), a seamstress, Sam Jr was the seventh of eight children. The family moved to Louisville, where Sam attended Central high school before joining the army in 1956, where he was posted as a desk clerk to Yokohama, Japan.

On his return to the US he enrolled at the University of Louisville to study fine arts. There he took to student politics and, as desegregation rolled slowly forwards, was a regular participant in NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) programmes. In 1962, recently graduated, he married Dorothy Butler, a journalist, and when she became the first black female reporter at the Washington Post, the couple moved to Washington DC.

While he and Butler participated in King’s march on the capital the following year, Gilliam’s interest in hands-on activism waned. “I’ve always been too involved in art … to actually get involved in the other,” he said in 1994, referring to politics.

First exploring “hard-edge” geometric abstraction, inspired by peers including Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, Gilliam had his first solo exhibition in 1967 at the Phillips Collection in Washington, followed by a commercial gallery show a year later.

He began to introduce wooden sculptural elements to his work. In Rondo (1971), a huge oak beam acts as a barrier, sealing a canvas of pastel tones into the corner of the gallery. Washed in a rainbow of colours, the canvas in “A” and the Carpenter I (1972) partially falls from a single trestle table leg.

Developing the drapes through to 1980, in the following decade Gilliam moved on to assembling collages of painted canvas and aluminium, often titled with reference to his artistic heroes. To Braque and Flowing Birds (1982) is a tall rectangular work of pastel colours, interrupted at the bottom left corner by a block of painted metal; the oddly shaped The Saint of Moritz Outside Mondrian (1984) brings together red, pink, green and yellow triangles, squares and circles of textile and metal.

Other works pay homage to jazz and blues, and the culture of the American south: New Orleans #2 (1984) is a mix of metal and canvas, deep reds and oranges with black elements mixed in. These were, Gilliam said, where the politics of his work could be found. “When you deal with the south, you deal with images of sights, of sounds, and of literature,” he said. “I think of these images in terms of abstractions, and of black literature and its roots without the particulars of single issues and images.”

In 2012 the artist Rashid Johnson curated a solo exhibition of Gilliam’s work at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, and in the same year included it in a group show at South London Gallery. These were Gilliam’s most high-profile shows for decades.

“There are black artists who tend to work with the message involved,” he said of those who dominated in the 90s and early 2000s. “They are able to do something I was not – to keep the political in the front. I may have made a big mistake by not looking closer earlier – they’re in the news and you want to know what they’re doing.”

From then on his success snowballed. In 2016 Gilliam’s work was included in the Marrakech Biennale, followed by the Venice Biennale the following year. In 2019 he had a solo show at Dia:Beacon, and the following year at Pace Gallery, both in New York. Exhibitions at Pace spaces in Geneva, Seoul and Hong Kong followed. A survey of Gilliam’s circular works, Full Circle, is currently on show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC.

Gilliam’s marriage to Butler ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Annie Gawlak, an art dealer and consultant whom he met in the mid 80s and married in 2018, his three daughters, Stephanie, Melissa and Leah, from his first marriage, three grandchildren and three sisters, Lizzie Jane, Lillie and Clenteria.

• Sam Gilliam, artist, born 30 November 1933; died 28 June 2022

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