One day in 1968, Sam Gilliam was leaning out of his studio window in Washington DC as a neighbor hung up his laundry. The painter, who died aged 88, was spellbound by the way the wet fabric sag under its own weight, and the clothes and sheets billow 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 in the so-called Washington Color School, a group of painters united in their interest in abstract works that juxtaposed solid blocks of color. Now he was looking for something freer. His ‘draped’ works saw him first remove the stretcher from his paintings, blending its vibrant tones not with a brush but by pouring and throwing it onto the loose canvas. Once it had dried, Gilliam knotted and knotted the painted material into concertina and crinkle shapes. The abstract work, which oscillates between painting and sculpture, is then suspended from the ceiling of the gallery or can fall like a curtain from the walls. Carousel State (1968) hangs in five locks, the resulting folds adding shadows and creases to the painted puddles of acid pink and watery yellow and blue.
“The liquidity of the colors was enhanced by the fluidity of the canvas. The paint and the surface took on an additional three-dimensional reality,” Gilliam said. “Now the canvas was not just the medium, but an essential part of the object. The hanging paintings began by celebrating the working process and ended with the involvement of the wall, floor and ceiling.
These works won him praise, 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 in New York, which included a large twisted banner that ran through the galleries. The following year, he was part of a group of artists to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, the first black person to do so.
However, the attention did not last. In 1980 he was included in a show called 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, art institutions, and the black power movement seemed troubled by a black artist seemingly indifferent to issues of his own identity.
“Representational art,” Gilliam chided his detractors, “does not represent blackness any more than a non-narrative, media-driven type of painting, like what I do.”
Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Sam Gilliam Sr, a truck driver, and Estery (née 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 military in 1956, where he was assigned as an office clerk in Yokohama, Japan.
Upon his return to the United States, he enrolled at the University of Louisville to study fine arts. There he got involved in student politics, and as desegregation slowly progressed, he regularly participated in the programs of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In 1962, freshly graduated, he married Dorothy Butler, a journalist, and when she became the first black female journalist at the Washington Post, the couple moved to Washington DC.
As he and Butler took part in King’s march on the capital the following year, Gilliam’s interest in practical activism waned. “I’ve always been too involved in art…to really get involved in the other,” he said in 1994, referring to politics.
Exploring hard-edge geometric abstraction for the first time, inspired by peers such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, Gilliam had his first solo exhibition in 1967 at the Phillips Collection in Washington, followed by an exhibition in a shopping mall a year later.
He began to introduce wood sculptural elements into his work. In Rondo (1971), a huge oak beam acts as a barrier, sealing a pastel-toned canvas in the corner of the gallery. Washed in a rainbow of colors, the canvas of “A” and the Carpenter I (1972) partially falls from a single trestle table leg.
Developing the curtains until 1980, in the following decade Gilliam moved on to assembling collages of painted canvas and aluminum, often titled in reference to his artistic heroes. To Braque and Flowing Birds (1982) is a large rectangular work in pastel colours, interrupted in the lower left corner by a block of painted metal; Moritz’s strange form The Saint 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 southern American culture: New Orleans #2 (1984) is a mixture of metal and canvas, deep reds and oranges mixed with black elements . the politics of his work could be found. “When you deal with the south, you deal with images of sights, sounds and literature,” he said. “I think of these images in terms of abstractions, and of black literature and its roots without the details of issues and unique images.”
In 2012, artist Rashid Johnson held a solo exhibition of Gilliam’s work at the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, and in the same year included it in a group show at the South London Gallery. These are Gilliam’s highest-profile shows in decades.
“There are black artists who tend to work with the message in question,” he said of those who dominated in the 90s and early 2000s. “They are able to do something that I wasn’t – to keep politics front and center. Maybe I made a big mistake by not taking a closer look sooner – they’re all over the news and you want to know what they’re up to.
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 exhibition at Dia: Beacon, and the following year at Pace Gallery, both in New York. Exhibitions at the Pace spaces in Geneva, Seoul and Hong Kong followed. A study of Gilliam’s circular works, Full Circle, is currently on display 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-1980s 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.