One of the great innovators of postwar American art, Sam Gilliam, has died aged 88. Gilliam invented ways in which painting could be interrogated and redefined. His six-decade career saw him selected in 1972 to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale. He was the first African-American artist to do so. In 2017, he exhibited at the Venice Biennale again in the Giardini’s central pavilion.
Being black is a very important point of tension and self-discovery – Sam Gilliam
In 1962, Gilliam had moved from Louisville, Kentucky, to Washington, D.C., where he became a part of the city’s core group of painters known as the Washington Color School. From 1963 to 1970, Gilliam’s work progressed with great intensity and confidence, fuelled partly by the support and recognition of institutions, curators and artists alike.
In the 1960s, as America’s political and social front began to explode in all directions, Gilliam began to take bold declarative initiatives, making vivid imagery inspired by the specific conditions of the African-American experience. At a time, “abstract art was said by some to be irrelevant to black African life.” Nevertheless, abstraction remained a critical issue for artists such as Gilliam. His early style developed from brooding figural abstractions into large paintings of flatly applied colour, pushing Gilliam to eventually remove the easel by eliminating the stretcher. During this period, Gilliam painted large colour-stained canvases, which he draped and suspended from the walls and ceilings, comprising some of his best-known artwork.
In 1971, he boycotted an event at the Whitney Museum, in New York, in support of and solidarity with the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition as a protest against the museum for failing to consult with black art experts in selecting art for the show.
His work has also belonged to abstract expressionism and lyrical abstraction. He worked on stretched, draped and wrapped canvas and added sculptural 3D elements. He was recognised as the first artist to introduce the idea of a draped, painted canvas hanging without stretcher bars around 1965. This significant contribution to the Color Field School has had a lasting impact on the contemporary art canon.
In his later work, Gilliam worked with polypropylene, computer-generated imaging, metallic and iridescent acrylics, handmade paper, aluminium, steel, plywood, and plastic.
His Gallery David Kordansky said:
We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of Sam Gilliam. His family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Children’s Defense Fund, Rock Creek Conservancy, or an art institution of the donor’s choosing.
David Kordansky added:
“I first fell in love with Sam Gilliam’s work when I was an MFA student at CalArts in the early 2000s. The dramatic and kaleidoscopic dance of his materials and his masterful retooling of the notions of paint and support were mesmerizing. Sam wrestled not only with the weight of art history and the antecedents of painterly discourse, but also with the energies that move between life and the entire cosmos.
Years later, I found myself discussing Sam’s work with Rashid Johnson over late-night drinks, a conversation that lasted well into the early morning hours. At the time, Rashid was not represented by my gallery, but it was through our shared love and respect for Sam’s practice that a bridge was formed between us. Sam was a bridge in a myriad of other ways too. He conjured the daring spirit and divine power of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Pharoah Sanders—the jazz heavyweights of exploration and improvisation. Sam was an architect of color whose vision propelled him into cosmic realms where experimentation and the moral compass provided by brave beauty were the only constants.
In 2012, Rashid, Mike Homer, and I decided to find Sam and propose an exhibition of his work. At that first visit to Sam’s Washington, D.C. studio—the first of many over the years—he responded to our proposal with what we thought was laughter, but soon realized were tears of joy. He quipped, “What took you so long?” and then we all cried together. For me, it was the beginning of an incredible adventure and collaboration rooted in love, art, and friendship.
The show, which was curated by Rashid and presented at my Los Angeles gallery in 2013, featured Sam’s 1960s hard-edge paintings and provided a look at the beginning of his career through the interpretive lens of an artist half his age. Sam was an undisputed giant of postwar painting, and in the five decades since those pictures had been made, he had represented the U.S. in the Venice Biennale, had his work shown in and collected by the most important museums in the world, and had reinvented painting for himself a dozen more times. And yet, this exhibition was a long overdue revelation for so many.
A decade ago, we were on the precipice of a tidal shift in the larger art world. The contributions of the Black avant-garde working in the U.S. from the 1960s through to the present, neglected by textbook versions of art history, were finally being recognized for their genius and significance. Sam’s revolutionary position was and is at the forefront of this conversation—he held the torch and lit the way for so many artists to come. A glance at the work being made by contemporary artists reveals his influence everywhere.
In the ’60s, Sam disrupted the attitudes and codes of Color School painting. When he took his canvas off the traditional two-dimensional support to create his Drape paintings, he completely transformed both the medium and the space in which it was seen. On formal terms, this radical proposition changed the narrative of American art and abstraction forever, but it was also a broader and deeper statement about what art means in a democratic society. It is no accident that Sam’s breakthroughs came during the height of the civil rights movement. He demanded that art, however abstract or resistant to discursive language, serve as nothing less than an artist’s primary means of engaging with the world.
Even after this formative period, Sam proved his commitment to this ethos time and time again, producing work that differed from one body to the next and which defied expectations at every turn. He was a profound thinker with original ideas about art, music, and literature of all kinds. His opinions could be sharp, but they were backed up by a confidence and warmth that epitomized the art of being human. As I write this, I can recall the laugh of the “Big Tree,” a nickname I gave him during one of our visits. Like a tree, Sam was grounded firmly in the earth, and constantly reached up towards the sun, the moon, and the stars, charting vast spaces that were always characterized by greatness.
I am deeply honored and blessed to have known Sam through the last decade of his journey. To serve his vision has been a life-defining privilege. It has been about more than work or even passion—it is a form of devotion to principles that represent what is good, abiding, and true. Sam changed the course of my life, like he inspired the lives of many others, as a generous teacher, mischievous friend, and sage mentor. Above all, Sam embodied a vital spirit of freedom achieved with fearlessness, ferocity, sensitivity, and poetry.
I love you, Sam. Thank you.”
June 27, 2022
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