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Sam Gilliam, abstract artist who went beyond the frame, dies at 88

With a 1969 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery, the D.C. artist instantly became one of the country’s most acclaimed abstract painters

Washington artist Sam Gilliam in 2016. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Sam Gilliam, a Washington artist who helped redefine abstract painting by liberating canvas from its traditional framework and shaking it loose in lavish, paint-spattered folds cascading from ceilings, stairwells and other architectural elements, died June 25 at his home in the District. He was 88.

The cause was kidney disease, said Adriana Elgarresta, public relations director of New York’s Pace Gallery, which represents his work, along with the David Kordansky Gallery.

Sam Gilliam never fought the canvas. He liberated it.

Mr. Gilliam was a relatively unknown art teacher in D.C.-area schools when he burst to international attention in 1969 with an exhibition that stunned the art community with its bravado.

Resembling a painter’s giant dropcloths, his flowing, unstructured canvases, known as drapes, appeared in what was then known as the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The extravagantly colored swags of fabric were suspended from the skylight of the Beaux-Arts building’s four-story atrium and prompted then-Washington Star art critic Benjamin Forgey to summarize the impact as “one of those watermarks by which the Washington art community measures its evolution.”

In a matter of months, Mr. Gilliam would become known throughout the country and later around the world as the painter who had knocked painting out of its frame. Over a career that spanned decades and several stylistic changes — not all of them as well received as his drapes — Mr. Gilliam would forever be known as an artistic innovator because of the Corcoran show.

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

His works are in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Phillips Collection, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, London’s Tate Modern and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris.

He had many public commissions, including for the Kennedy Center and a mural at Reagan National Airport. His career capstone, a commission by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, was a sprawling, five-panel work that was 28 feet wide. He called it “Yet Do I Marvel,” after the poem by Harlem Renaissance writer Countee Cullen.

Mr. Gilliam continued to surpass himself — setting, and 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 show at the 2017 Venice Biennale — 45 years after he made history as the first African American artist to represent his country in that exhibition. An exhibition of new work, alongside a 1977 piece, is on display at the Hirshhorn until Sept. 11.

Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum who organized the 2012 exhibition “African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond,” said Mr. Gilliam’s claim to fame was the result of a strategic move. His immediate artistic forebears, including Jackson Pollock and the other nonrepresentational painters of the 1950s, had already thoroughly upended the notion of painting as a recognizable picture.

He ‘gets painting off the wall’

What was revolutionary about Mr. Gilliam, Mecklenburg said, was the way he took painting “one step beyond” what had already been accomplished. “He’s the one,” she said, “who gets painting off the wall.”

Mr. Gilliam’s legacy, she said, is therefore less stylistic than philosophical. By tearing canvases off the wall, and by draping them on and around other architectural elements, Mr. Gilliam gave an entire generation of artists — including Christo and his wife Jean-Claude, who rose to fame in the 1970s and later with such fabric-swathed artworks as the “Wrapped Reichstag” — implicit permission to do the same.

Mr. Gilliam was not the first artist to do so. By the late 1960s, a few other painters had begun to experiment with unstretched canvases, among them Richard Tuttle in New York and William T. Wiley in San Francisco. But it was Mr. Gilliam’s sculptural, even grandiose sensibility that took the once-flat painted surface into another realm, transforming it into something a viewer feels as much as sees.

Jonathan Binstock, who organized Mr. Gilliam’s 2005-2006 retrospective at the Corcoran, observed that under Mr. Gilliam’s muscular handling, paintings became “chutes, torrents and environments.”

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

­­­In his hands — and with the application­­­ of such un-painterly tools as mops, rakes and trowels — Mr. Gilliam’s painted surfaces might come out resembling anything from tie-dye to glue, rubber, resin, enamel, cake frosting or road tar.

Alex Mayer, a sculptor who worked for many years as Mr. Gilliam’s studio assistant, said, “Sam loved turning things upside down.” The one constant, Binstock wrote, was the “intimate experience of paint’s physical character.”

By his own account, Mr. Gilliam estimated that he went through more than 100 gallons of paint a year. Not all of that ended up on canvas. For many years, he lived in a Mount Pleasant rowhouse whose exterior was an ever-changing advertisement for its owner’s line of work. The bright blue porch might be complemented by a purple fence, a red front door and yellow window trim. The paint-spattered floors were artworks in themselves.

Mr. Gilliam’s critics were not always sympathetic to his experiments. Reviewing a 1981 New York show of collaged paintings, which featured pieces of canvas patched together like a quilt, critic Kay Larson accused the artist of “worrying the canvas surface … like a neurotic architect who can’t keep his hands off his work.” At the same time, others chided the artist for being too safe. Mr. Gilliam’s drapes are “a source of pleasure,” reviewer Blake Gopnik wrote in The Washington Post. “That’s all they want to be.”

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

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

Not everyone found Mr. Gilliam’s work pretty. In 1979, the artist’s first permanent public art commission — a 15-by-40-foot drape painting created for the lobby of Atlanta’s Richard B. Russell Federal Building — was rumored to have been almost thrown away by workmen who mistook it for a painter’s splotchy dropcloth.

Although reported by both CBS and NBC, the story, as it turns out, may have been exaggerated. “One workman couldn’t have lifted that painting if he tried,” Mr. Gilliam said at the time. “It weighed 300 pounds. Besides, it looks much too good to be mistaken for junk.”

‘I had to do something different’

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

“I learned to draw quite early,” Mr. Gilliam once told arts writer Joan Jeffri. “I made lots of things out of clay, and then I started to paint quite early, about 10 years old, just bought some paint and started.” He added that his facility with art was spurred by the fact that his father “left a lot of materials around — hammers, saws, wood.”

The family settled in Louisville during World War II. In 1955, Mr. Gilliam graduated from the University of Louisville with a bachelor’s degree in creative art. After a brief stint as an Army clerk in Japan, he returned to his alma mater and received a master’s degree in painting in 1961.

At the time, Mr. Gilliam worked largely in a representational vein, depicting faceless, shadowy human figures on traditional stretched canvases. As with many artists before and since, a career as a teacher seemed a logical, if not inevitable, path.

In 1962, Mr. Gilliam arrived in Washington, following his college sweetheart and new bride, the former Dorothy Butler, who had just been hired as a Post reporter and would later become a columnist for the paper. The marriage ended in divorce.

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

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

In Washington, the artist found conditions that were ripe for artistic reinvention. Foremost, the city’s culture was more racially open than the one he had come from. Dupont Circle was the center of a burgeoning art scene, centered around the Washington Color School.

Mr. Gilliam’s early, close friendship with Thomas Downing, a Color School painter who acted as a mentor, would prove instrumental in his transformation from representational painter to abstractionist.

Under Downing’s tutelage, Mr. Gilliam began to let go of everything he had been taught about traditional painting, working more loosely, rapidly and spontaneously, allowing colors to bleed into one another, and letting the paint to do what it will. One freezing night early in his career, the artist set a large, unfinished canvas outside his cramped studio to dry in the open air. Overnight, the water in the acrylic paint separated and froze. Mr. Gilliam liked the unorthodox effect.

If there was a single, epiphanic moment when Mr. Gilliam was moved to remove his paintings from their wooden supports and to hang them like drapes, the artist was often cagey about when — or even whether — that occurred.

Although he was frequently said to have been inspired by African American quilts, or laundry hanging on a clothesline, he denied those inspirations in a 2011 interview with WAMU radio host Kojo Nnamdi. “No,” he told Nnamdi, “I was inspired by Rock Creek Park.”

A moment later, however, Mr. Gilliam added, somewhat equivocally, that “being inspired by laundry on a line has made me famous, so I won’t knock that.”

The truth was probably closer to the rest of his answer. “It was a business decision,” Mr. Gilliam told Nnamdi. “I had to do something different.”

A natural teacher, Mr. Gilliam was generous with his time, opening his studio door to any artist or student who sought his counsel. Yet he was also equally well known for a prickly and at times volatile temper.

In 1981, while participating in a panel discussion about institutional support of local arts organized by the Corcoran, Mr. Gilliam, who was one of the panelists, loudly denounced Corcoran Director Peter Marzio — another panelist — as a “turkey” for promoting national artists over homegrown ones.

Although Mr. Gilliam may have been giving voice to the frustration that many in the room already felt, the indelicacy of his comment — not to mention the irony of it, seeing as the speaker’s first big break came from the Corcoran — came across as unseemly. Mr. Gilliam’s comment was met with loud hisses from the audience of local artists, and the reprimand “Be quiet, Sam,” from another artist on the panel.

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

If he was, at times, a combative presence in the very community of which he was recognized as the dean, his adoptive city was so quick to forgive because it was so proud of him. “He could be a diva,” Sondra Arkin, a friend and fellow painter, said, “but he was our diva.”

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