Commentary: Why the late Sam Gilliam’s inventive abstract drapes celebrate artistic difference

Sam Gilliam, an artist who merged painting with sculpture into brightly colored canvases he removed from their wooden stretchers and hung in space, died of kidney failure on June 25 in Washington, D.C. , where he lived and worked for six decades. He was 88 years old.

The works for which he is best known, generally referred to as “drapes”, were at the forefront of abstract art when he began them in 1967. Accentuating the material properties of paint, he used mops, rakes , paintbrushes and simple gravity to apply vivid color to canvases suspended in space from the ceiling or gathered in clusters from pegs, rather than hanging stretched and flat against the wall. Establishing ideas of advanced art worshiped abstraction to emphasize the distinct formal qualities inherent in paintings and sculptures. Gilliam, however, with artists as diverse as Jay DeFeo in San Francisco, Eva Hesse in New York and others, traveled through these separate circuits. Painting merges with sculpture in lush chromatic fields.

“10/27/69” by Sam Gilliam (1969), from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

(Studio Fredrik Nilsen, David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery)

A local schoolteacher, he had already participated in a few modest group exhibitions, including “The Negro in American Art” at UCLA in 1966 and the inaugural presentation two years later at the Studio Museum in Harlem. But Gilliam burst onto the national art scene in 1969 with his eye-opening participation in an exhibition of three artists at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, a now closed museum. He hung huge, brightly painted curtains from skylights atop the four-story atrium of the 1897 Beaux-Arts building.

The colorful garlands contrasted sharply with the elegantly traditional space, which stood across from the White House. Many black artists of the time produced paintings and sculptures in figurative modes that depicted social and political themes. At the height of the civil rights movement in the nation’s capital, Gilliam’s inventive abstract gesture of celebrating artistic difference was immediately embraced.

Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, the seventh of eight children of a seamstress and a carpenter, Gilliam earned his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Over the years, he has received honorary doctorates from seven art schools, including his alma mater. His work is part of the collections of the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and other international museums.

After the Corcoran exhibition, Gilliam exhibited extensively over the next half-century, but his work rarely appeared in Los Angeles. He was approaching 80 when his first solo gallery exhibition opened here in 2013 at the David Kordansky Gallery, where he has shown three times since.

Gilliam’s marriage to Washington Post reporter Dorothy Butler ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Washington art dealer Annie Gawlak, three daughters from his first marriage, and three siblings.

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