Photography

Photos: Sam Gilliam, one of the country’s most renowned Black artists, dies at 88

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.

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

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.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

April 7, 1969 | Washington

Artist Sam Gilliam sits by one of his canvases, entitled "Swing" at the Jefferson Place Gallery. Mr. Gilliam was a relatively unknown art teacher in D.C.-area schools when he burst to international attention in 1969 for an exhibition that stunned the art community with its bravado.

Frank Johnston/The Washington Post

Frank Johnston/The Washington Post

Nov. 30, 1973 | Washington

Sam Gilliam's art is seen. “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 abetted by the fact that his father “left a lot of materials around — hammers, saws, wood.”

Craig Herndon/The Washington Post

Craig Herndon/The Washington Post

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.

Craig Herndon/The Washington Post

June 28, 2005 | Washington

Gilliam's canvases are suspended in the gallery section's spiralling stairwell of American University's new Katzen Arts Center. 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.”

Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post

Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post

Feb. 12, 2009 | Los Angeles, Calif.

From left: Image Awards Key of Life Award honoree's artists Elizabeth Catlett, Sam Gilliam and Jonathan Green onstage during the 40th NAACP Image Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium.

Vince Bucci/Getty Images for NAACP

Vince Bucci/Getty Images for NAACP

Jan. 24, 2011 | Washington

Artist Sam Gilliam oversees the installation of one of his art works, a draped canvas named '"Flower Mill," which is placed behind a staircase at the Phillips Collection.

Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post

Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post

July 7, 2014 | Washington

"(P.A.C.), And Then", an acrylic on canvas by Sam Gilliam is one of several art pieces for sale by Graham Holdings, former owners of The Washington Post.

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post

Jan. 21, 2015 | Washington

Secretary of State John Kerry congratulates artist Sam Gilliam during an Art in Embassies Medal of Arts Award event at the US Department of State.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

June 22, 2016 | Washington

Sam Gilliam poses for a photograph. 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.

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

June 12, 2018 | Basel, Switzerland

A man walks past an artwork by Sam Gilliam titled "untitled" during the preview day of Art Basel, world's largest contemporary art fair in Basel.

AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

Aug. 27, 2019 | Washington

Sam Gilliam's "Carousel Light Depth" adorns a wall at the REACH, a new multi use complex at the Kennedy Center. The untitled sculpture is by Joel Shapiro.

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

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.

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

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.”

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

This UNTITLED 93.10 painting is part of Sam Gilliam: Full Circle exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. on display through Sept. 11. SAM GILLIAM/PHOTO BY RON BLUNT/HIRSHHORN MUSEUM AND SCULPTURE GARDEN, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

RUBY LIGHT, the 1972 acrylic on canvas painting is part of the Sam Gilliam: Full Circle exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum. SAM GILLIAM/PHOTO BY RON BLUNT/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

Installation view of Sam Gilliam: Full Circle at the Hirshhorn Museum.

Ron Blunt/Smithsonian Institution

Ron Blunt/Smithsonian Institution

June 22, 2016 | Washington

Artist Sam Gilliam poses for a photograph.

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

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

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Credits

Photo editing and production by Troy Witcher and Jennifer Beeson; Text by Michael O'Sullivan