Sam Gilliam, famous for ‘Drape Paintings’ has died at 88

The galleries representing his work announced Monday that the cause was kidney failure

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Pioneering abstract artist Sam Gilliam, known for using unstretched canvases to create paintings and sculpture, died on June 25 at age 88.

The galleries representing his work, David Kordansky and Pace, announced Monday that the cause was kidney failure.

Sam Gilliam
Much like the circus tents of his Tupelo, Miss., youth, the three fabric peaks of Sam Gilliam’s mixed-media sculpture, “Autumn Surf” (1980), hang from the ceiling of the atrium of the UW – Stevens Point’s fine arts building. (Sam Gilliam Artist at Stevens Point. Mandatory Credit: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -USA TODAY NETWORK)

Born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933, Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C., in 1961, after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in creative art from the University of Louisville. He served as one of the leading instructors of a 1950s movement of abstract artists known as the Washington Color School, Art Forum reports. Gilliam set up his first studio in Northwest D.C., where he lived for the remainder of his life. In the 60s, he began experimenting with shaped canvases and became known for his Drape works. 

Gilliam famously used unstretched canvases to create paintings and sculptures that were hung from ceilings or pinned to walls. His work always hung differently at each installation. Gilliam explained in a 2018 Morning Edition profile that his drape work was inspired by laundry hanging from a clothesline. 

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

In 1972, Gilliam became the first Black artist to exhibit in the US Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Five decades into a successful art career, the Smithsonian commissioned him to create a 28-foot public work that debuted at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016.

Gilliam’s work is held in the collection of several major art institutions around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London, the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago … and many more, NPR reports. 

“Sam changed the course of my life, like he inspired the lives of many others, as a generous teacher, mischievous friend, and sage mentor,” David Kordansky said in a statement. “Above all, Sam embodied a vital spirit of freedom achieved with fearlessness, ferocity, sensitivity, and poetry.”

Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery, also paid tribute to Gilliam in a statement published on the gallery’s website.

“Sam was a legendary artist who has inspired subsequent generations,” Glimcher said in the statement. “He is truly one of the giants of Modernism, but he was also an exceptional human being.”

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