Sam Gilliam: Abstract painter whose art went beyond the frame

Sam Gilliam, a Washington DC artist who helped redefine abstract painting by freeing the canvas from its traditional frame and shaking it into sumptuous paint-splattered folds cascading from ceilings, stairwells and other features architects, died at the age of 88.

Resembling a giant painter’s drop cloth, his flowing, unstructured canvases, called curtains, appeared in what was then known as the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The garlands of extravagantly colored fabric were hung from the skylight of the four-story atrium of the Beaux-Arts building and prompted then-washington star art critic Benjamin Forgey to sum up the impact as “one of those watermarks by which the art community in Washington measures its evolution”.

Within months, Gilliam would become known nationwide and later the world as the painter who had brought the painting out of its frame. In a career that spanned decades and several stylistic changes – not all as well-received as his curtains – Gilliam would forever be known as an artistic innovator thanks to the Corcoran show.

Gilliam was never an official member of the Washington Color School, the city-based painting movement whose practitioners rose to international prominence in the 1960s with a celebration of pure color. But he quickly became the face of the Color School’s second wave.

He had many public commissions, including his career cornerstone, a commission from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was a sprawling five-panel work 28 feet wide. He called her Yet I marvelbased on the poem by Harlem Renaissance writer Countee Cullen.

Gilliam continued to outdo himself – setting, then breaking, multiple auction records for the price of his art, which in 2018 skyrocketed to $2.2 million for his 1971 canvas. lady day II. At 83, he was invited to exhibit at the 2017 Venice Biennale – 45 years after making history as the first African-American artist to represent his country in this exhibition.

Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum who curated the 2012 exhibit “African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond,” said Gilliam’s fame was the result of a strategic move. His immediate artistic ancestors, including Jackson Pollock and the other nonfigurative painters of the 1950s, had already profoundly changed the notion of painting as a recognizable image.

What was revolutionary about Gilliam, said Mecklenburg, was how he took the painting “a step beyond” what had already been accomplished. “It’s him,” she said, “that gets the paint on the wall.”

Gilliam’s legacy, she says, is therefore less stylistic than philosophical. By tearing canvases from the wall and draping them over and around other architectural elements, he gave an entire generation of artists implicit permission to do the same.

Gilliam was not the first artist to do so. By the late 1960s a few other painters had begun experimenting with unstretched canvas, among them Richard Tuttle and William T Wiley. But it was Gilliam’s sculptural, even grandiose sensibility that propelled the once flat painted surface into another realm, transforming it into something a viewer feels as much as they see.

Gilliam supervises the installation of his piece “Flower Mill” at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.

(The Washington Post)

Although most often identified with drapery paintings, a style to which he would return throughout his career, Gilliam was also known for his relentless experimentation. In addition to the occasional foray into the more traditional stretched canvas, he also explored collage, articulated wood panels, and other forms of three-dimensional construction.

Alex Mayer, a sculptor who worked for many years as Gilliam’s studio assistant, said, “Sam loved to shake things up.” The one constant, Binstock writes, was “the intimate experience of the physicality of painting.”

By his own account, Gilliam estimated he went through over 100 gallons of paint per year. All this did not end up on canvas. For many years he lived in a Mount Pleasant townhouse whose exterior was an ever-changing advertisement for its owner’s work. The bright blue porch can be complemented with a purple picket fence, red front door and yellow window trim. The paint splattered floors were works of art in themselves.

Gilliam’s reviews were not always favorable to his experiments. Reviewing an exhibition of collaged paintings in New York in 1981, which featured pieces of canvas patched together like a quilt, critic Kay Larson accused the artist of “preoccupying the surface of the canvas…like a neurotic architect who can’t keep his hands off his work”. At the same time, others chided him for being too careful.

Although he rose to prominence during the height of the civil rights movement, Gilliam’s paintings for the most part avoided Afrocentric or even overtly political themes. (The 1969 canvas, April 4honoring the death of Martin Luther King Jr, was a rare exception.) It was a position he was sometimes taken to task for, said Gilliam The Washington Post in 1993.

“I remember when [Black activist] Stokely Carmichael brought together a group of us to talk to us about our mission,” Gilliam said. “He said, ‘You’re black artists! I need you! But you won’t be able to do your pretty pictures anymore.’”

Sam Gilliam Jr was born on November 30, 1933, the seventh of eight children. His father was a carpenter and his mother a seamstress.

“I learned to draw pretty early,” Gilliam told writer Joan Jeffri. “I did a lot of things with clay, then I started painting quite early, around the age of 10, I just bought some paint and started.” He added that his ease with the art was boosted by the fact that his father “left a lot of materials around – hammers, saws, wood”.

A man walks past an untitled work by Sam Gilliam during Art Basel in 2018


In 1955, Gilliam graduated from the University of Louisville with a bachelor’s degree in creative arts. After a brief stint as an army clerk in Japan, he returned to his alma mater and earned a master’s degree in painting in 1961.

In 1962, Gilliam arrived in Washington DC, following his college sweetheart and new wife, the former Dorothy Butler, who had just been hired as Job journalist and would later become a columnist for the newspaper. The marriage ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Washington art dealer Annie Gawlak; three daughters from his first marriage; three sisters; and three grandchildren.

Gilliam accepted a position as an art instructor at McKinley Technical High School in Washington D.C., where he would continue to work for five years, in the first of several teaching positions.

In Washington, the artist found the conditions conducive to artistic reinvention. Above all, the culture of the city was more racially open than where he came from. Dupont Circle was the center of a burgeoning arts scene, centered on the Washington Color School.

Gilliam’s early and close friendship with Thomas Downing, a Color School painter who acted as a mentor, proved instrumental in his transformation from figurative painter to abstractionist.

Under Downing’s tutelage, Gilliam began to abandon everything he had been taught about traditional painting, working more freely, quickly and spontaneously, allowing the colors to blend into each other and letting the paint do its thing. ‘she wanted.

While there was a single epiphanic moment when Gilliam was driven to remove his paintings from their wooden supports and hang them like curtains, the artist was often suspicious as to when – or even if – it happened. product.

Also a natural teacher, Gilliam was generous with his time, opening the door to his studio to any artist or student who sought his advice. Yet he was also known for his prickly and sometimes unstable temper.

In 1981, while participating in a roundtable on institutional support for local arts organized by the Corcoran, Gilliam, who was one of the panelists, loudly denounced Corcoran director Peter Marzio – another panelist – as a “turkey” for the promotion of national rather than local artists. those.

While Gilliam may have expressed the frustration that many in the room were already feeling, the indelicacy of his comment – ​​not to mention his irony, given that the speaker’s first big break came from the Corcoran – came across as improper. Gilliam’s comment drew public derision

Two years later, at the opening of another Corcoran exhibition of Gilliam’s work, the artist was presented with an ax and a block of wood, symbolically burying the hatchet in the presence of museum trustees.

If he was, at times, a combative presence in the very community of which he was recognized as the dean, his adopted town forgave so quickly because it was so proud of him. “He might be a diva,” said Sondra Arkin, a friend and fellow painter, “but he was our diva.”

Sam Gilliam, abstract artist, born November 30, 1933, died June 25, 2022

© The Washington Post

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