Sam Gilliam, a Washington artist who helped redefine abstract painting, died June 25 at his home in the District. 88-year-old. Adriana Elgarresta, public relations director of New York’s Pace Gallery, reported he died of kidney disease. Mr. Gilliam was a relatively obscure D.C.-area art teacher until he gained international prominence in 1969 for a brazen exhibition.
His flowing, unstructured canvases, called curtains, appeared in the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The colourful fabric swags draped from the Beaux-Arts building’s four-story atrium caused then-Washington Star art critic Benjamin Forgey to call it “one of those watermarks by which the Washington art community evaluates its growth.”
In a matter of months, Mr. Gilliam became recognized as the painter who framed a painting. Mr. Gilliam was eternally renowned as an artistic innovator because of the Corcoran show, which spanned decades and various style shifts.
Mr. Gilliam never joined the Washington Color School, a 1960s painting movement that celebrated pure color. He became the Color School’s second wave’s face rapidly. His works are in the National Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Phillips Collection, Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Tate Modern in London, and Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris.
He painted murals at Reagan National Airport and the Kennedy Center. His professional pinnacle was a 28-foot-wide, five-panel piece commissioned by the Smithsonian. He named it “Yet Do I Marvel” after Countee Cullen’s poem.
Mr. Gilliam set and broke many auction records for his paintings, which in 2018 surged to $2.2 million for “Lady Day II.” At 83, he was invited to show at the 2017 Venice Biennale, 45 years after being the first African American to do so. The Hirshhorn is showing new and 1977 work until Sept. 11.
Senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Virginia Mecklenburg said Mr. Gilliam’s celebrity was intentional. Jackson Pollock and other nonrepresentational artists of the 1950s had already upended painting as a recognisable picture.
He “Scrapes Paint”
Gilliam went painting “one step beyond,” Mecklenburg stated. “He removes paintings,” she stated. Mr. Gilliam’s legacy is philosophical, she added. By pulling canvases off the wall and hanging them around architectural features, Mr. Gilliam offered an entire generation of artists — including Christo and his wife Jean-Claude — implicit permission to do the same.
Gilliam wasn’t the first to do so. Richard Tuttle and William T. Wiley began using unstretched canvases in the late 1960s. Mr. Gilliam’s sculptural, grandiose sensibility transformed the once-flat painted surface into something a viewer feels as well as sees.
Under Gilliam’s muscular treatment, paintings became “chutes, torrents, and environments,” said Jonathan Binstock, who curated his 2005-2006 Corcoran retrospective. Although best renowned for his drape paintings, Gilliam was a restless experimenter. In addition to stretched canvas, he explored collage, hinged wood panels, and 3D building.
Mr. Gilliam’s painted surfaces may resemble tie-dye, glue, rubber, resin, enamel, cake frosting, or road tar when he uses un-painterly instruments like mops, rakes, and trowels. Alex Mayer, Mr. Gilliam’s studio assistant, observed, “Sam loves flipping things.” Binstock’s one constant was “paint’s physical character.”
Mr. Gilliam said he used 100 gallons of paint a year. It wasn’t entirely painted. His Mount Pleasant rowhouse was an ever-changing advertising for his field of business. Bright blue porch, purple fence, red door, and yellow window trim. Paint-splattered floors were artworks.
His detractors weren’t always fond of his experiments. Kay Larson, reviewing a 1981 New York show of collaged paintings, said the artist “worried the canvas surface… like a neurotic architect” Others said the artist was too cautious. Blake Gopnik of The Washington Post praised Mr. Gilliam’s drapes. “They desire nothing else.”
Despite rising to fame during the civil rights era, Gilliam’s paintings avoided Afrocentric or overtly political themes. The 1969 artwork “April 4” honouring MLK’s death was an exception. Mr. Gilliam told The Post in 1993 that his viewpoint was sometimes criticised. Mr. Gilliam recalled when Stokely Carmichael told them of their goal. “He said, ‘You’re black artists!'” Help! But you can’t make lovely photos.'”
Gilliam’s work wasn’t liked by everyone. In 1979, employees mistook the artist’s 15-by-40-foot drape painting for a painter’s dropcloth and almost threw it away. The CBS and NBC narrative may have been overblown. Mr. Gilliam said, “One worker couldn’t have lifted that picture.” 300 lbs. It’s too nice to be trash.”
I Needed A Change He Added!
Sam Gilliam Jr. was born Nov. 30, 1933, in Tupelo, Miss. His carpenter father and seamstress mother. Mr. Gilliam said he learned to draw early on. “I built dozens of things out of clay and then started painting at age 10; I just bought paint and started.” His father “left a lot of things around — hammers, saws, wood,” he said.
WWII brought the family to Louisville. Mr. Gilliam earned a bachelor’s degree in creative art from Louisville in 1955. After serving as an Army clerk in Japan, he earned a master’s degree in painting in 1961. Mr. Gilliam depicted faceless, shadowy characters on stretched canvases at the period. As with many artists before and since teaching felt inevitable.
In 1962, Mr. Gilliam arrived in Washington after his undergraduate girlfriend and new bride, Dorothy Butler, was employed as a Post reporter and later columnist. Divorced. Three daughters from his first marriage, Stephanie, Melissa, and Leah Franklin Gilliam; three sisters; and three grandchildren survive him.
Mr. Gilliam began his teaching career at McKinley Technical High School, where he worked for five years.
In Washington, the artist found creative opportunities. The city’s culture was more racially liberal than his own. The Washington Color School flourished near Dupont Circle. Mr. Gilliam’s early connection with Color School painter Thomas Downing helped him become an abstractionist.
Under Downing’s direction, Gilliam began to let go of traditional painting, working more loosely, quickly, and spontaneously, allowing colors to spill into one another, and letting the paint do what it will. The artist set a giant unfinished canvas outside his small studio one frigid night to dry. Acrylic paint water froze overnight. Gilliam appreciated the unconventional effect.
Mr. Gilliam was cagey about when or whether he had a single epiphanic moment when he decided to hang his paintings like drapes. In a 2011 interview with WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi, he denied being inspired by African American quilts or clotheslines. “Rock Creek Park inspired me,” he told Nnamdi.
Gilliam subsequently said, “Being inspired by washing on a line got me famous, so I won’t knock that.” His other answer probably had more truth. Mr. Gilliam told Nnamdi, “It was business.” “I needed a change.” Mr. Gilliam was a natural teacher who opened his studio to artists and students seeking advice. He was also known for his fiery temper.
In 1981, Mr. Gilliam, who was a panellist, called Corcoran director Peter Marzio a “turkey” for pushing national artists over local ones. Mr. Gilliam may have been expressing the irritation of many in the audience, but his comment was insensitive and ironic, given that the speaker’s big break came from the Corcoran. Mr. Gilliam’s comment was received with loud hisses from local artists and a “Be quiet, Sam” from another panellist.
Two years later, during another Corcoran show of Mr. Gilliam’s work, he buried an axe in front of museum administrators. His adoptive city was quick to forgive him for being a belligerent presence in the community where he was dean because it was so proud of him. Sondra Arkin, a painter friend, stated, “He was our diva.”