Sam Gilliam, an Acclaimed Visual Artist, Passes Away at 88

sam-gilliam
Image: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Sam Gilliam, a renowned visual artist who helped redefine abstract painting, passed away on June 25 at his home in Washington D.C., reports NPR. He was 88.

At the time of his passing, he was regarded as one of the most important and influential abstract visual artists in the U.S.

Adriana Elgarresta, public relations director of New York’s Pace Gallery, confirmed that his passing was due to kidney disease.

Born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933, Gilliam would go on to attend the University of Louisville, where he graduated with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. In 1962, he relocated to Washington, D.C., where he lived and had his studio for the rest of his life. He became one of the leading artists of the Washington Color School, a 1950s movement that centered on using large fields of color.

His Drape works, a style he developed in the 1960s where he took unstretched canvases and hung them from ceilings or pinned them in great waterfalls to walls, became one of his artistic trademarks. Part painting, part sculpture, whenever his art was displayed in an exhibition, it never hung the same way twice.

During the 1960s and 1970s, he also began to experiment with abstract paintings reflecting the political and social turmoil of the day such as the Vietnam War and the Black freedom struggle for civil rights. 

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

Gilliam became the first Black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1972.

In the late 1970s, he began painting canvases, and then cut out and rearranged geometric shapes that evoked both the improvisations of the jazz music he loved and African American quilts.  

Gilliam debuted a 28-foot public work commissioned at the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016.

Throughout his illustrious career, Gilliam’s work has appeared in some of the world’s most celebrated museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Tate Modern in London; and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris.

In 2015, he was awarded the U.S. State Department’s Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.

Currently, the exhibition Sam Gilliam: Full Circle is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., through Sept. 11. And, his work Double Merge is on view at the Dia Beacon in Beacon, N.Y.

Describing his work in a 2018 interview with José da Silva in The Art Newspaper, Gilliam said, “The expressive act of making a mark and hanging it in space is always political. My work is as political as it is formal.”

We extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family and friends of Sam Gilliam.

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