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Sam Gilliam, a painter revered for his colorful draped canvases, has died aged 88

Sam Gilliam, an abstractionist known primarily for his Drape paintings — unstretched canvases hung from ceilings and pinned to walls — as well as being the first black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, has died. Gilliam died on June 25, aged 88. The cause of death was kidney failure. His death was announced by his New York gallery Pace, as well as his Los Angeles gallery David Kordansky.

The seventh of eight children, Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933, although the majority of his childhood was spent in Louisville, Kentucky. His father was a carpenter and railwayman and his mother was a teacher. Gilliam earned his BFA from the University of Louisville, followed by a brief stint as an army clerk in Japan, after which he returned to the University of Louisville for an MFA in painting, graduating in 1961. The following year, he and his first wife, Dorothy Butler, moved to Washington, D.C., where he had been offered a job at the Washington Post, becoming the publication’s first black reporter, and Gilliam took a job as an art teacher at a local high school. He will live and work in DC for the rest of his life.

Sam Giliam, Dual fusion1968, installation view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. ©Sam Giliam. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, Courtesy of Dia Art Foundation, New York

Gilliam was painting in a predominantly figurative mode at the time, and later said his move towards abstraction came with the encouragement of the Washington Color School – a group of artists that included Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Thomas Downing and others. Downing in particular served as a mentor to the young artist, encouraging him to develop a looser and more fluid painting technique. Although he was never officially a member of the Washington Color School, he was often seen as the face of the movement’s second wave, according to a spokesperson for David Kordansky..

It was during this time that Gilliam began the two series of works for which he is best known: his beveled and draped edge paintings. In 1967 he began Beveled Edge Paintings (also known as Slice Paintings) in which he dyed the raw canvas with fluidly applied acrylic paint before bending or creasing the material as the paint was still wet and then mounted him on a custom-made stretcher. beveled edge bars. In 1968 he began the Drape paintings – his most iconic series – in which he applied his paint in the same way, then removed the stretcher bars altogether, choosing instead to let his canvases hang fluidly from the wall or ceiling.

“My Drape paintings are never hung the same way twice,” said Gilliam The arts journal in 2018. “Composition is always present, but you have to let it happen, be open to improvisation, to spontaneity, to what happens in a space while you work.

Sam Giliam Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, and Pace Gallery. Photography by Fredrik Nilsen Studio

In 1969, an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC—now a branch of George Washington University called the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Design—featured a number of these Drape paintings, and the exhibit turned out to be the Gilliam’s big breakthrough, attracting wide attention. Three years later, in 1972, he became the first black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.

“No one could forget the 75ft piece Sam made for the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1972. It stole the show that year and made a deep impression on all who saw it” , Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery, wrote on the occasion of Gilliam’s death. “Truly, it was impossible not to feel the audacity, grandeur and complexity of what Sam was trying to do. He explodes the boundaries between sculpture, painting and installation. He reinvented color and space in abstraction, and he hasn’t stopped since. It’s an exciting thing to see.

Sam Giliam, green april1969. Collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles and Pace Gallery. Photograph by Lee Thompson.

In the decades that followed, Gilliam continued to push himself and his medium, further struggling with the physicality of painting, although his commercial success came more slowly than that of other artists of his generation. This may have been the result of a racist system that systematically excluded artists of color; this may partly stem from his lack of desire to engage with the New York art world – Glimcher said that when he offered to exhibit Gilliam at Pace, the artist “explained that he had never wanted a strong engagement with a New York gallery” – or it may have been a combination of these. Later in life, however, he enjoyed a wave of success, with solo exhibitions at museums such as Dia:Beacon and Kunstmuseum Basel, and performance of Kordansky in Los Angeles from 2012 and Pace in New York. from 2019.

In 2017, he was again invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. “Everything that’s happening now – the immigration crisis, the bombings, the gutting of the National Endowment for the Arts, presidential corruption – was present in the 1970s. It seems worse now, but history, as art, is cyclical,” he said. art forum during installation. “Managing the cycles of history is art at its greatest capacity,” he added. “For me, art is about getting out of traditional ways of thinking. These are artists generating their own ways of working. We have to keep thinking about all of what art is, what it does. Although my work is not overtly political, I believe that art has the ability to draw attention to politics and remind us of this potential through its presence.

Sam Giliam, Seahorses1975, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Photograph by Johansen Krause. Courtesy of the artist, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, and Pace Gallery

A great exhibition of his work, Sam Gilliam: full circle, is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC until 9/11. “For more than half a century, Sam Gilliam has modeled creative genius, artistic breakthroughs, and professional perseverance,” said Richard J. Powell, Duke University art historian and board member. administration of Hirschhorn. A declaration. “From his painterly interpretations of draped splendor to his evocative accumulations of pigment and color, he single-handedly reinvents painting. Sam Gilliam left an indelible mark on modernism.