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

Sam Gilliam, an artist who fused painting and sculpture in vividly colored canvases that he removed from their wooden stretchers and hung in space, died June 25 of kidney failure in Washington, DC, where he lived and worked for six decades . He was 88.

The works for which he is best known, typically referred to as ‘curtains’, were at the forefront of abstract art when he began them in 1967. He emphasized the material properties of paint, using mops, rakes, brushes, and simple gravity to apply vivid colors to canvases hung from the ceiling of the room or collected in bundles of pens, rather than stretched and flat against the wall hang. The established ideas of advanced art deified abstraction to emphasize the distinct formal qualities unique to painting and sculpture. However, Gilliam traversed these separate circles along with artists as diverse as Jay DeFeo in San Francisco, Eva Hesse in New York, and others. Painting fused with sculpture in lush fields of color.

A colorful canvas hanging on a wall

Sam Gilliam’s 10/27/69 (1969) from the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

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

A local schoolteacher, he had previously been involved in a few modest group shows, including The Negro in American Art at UCLA in 1966 and its inaugural presentation two years later at the Studio Museum in Harlem. But Gilliam broke onto the national art scene in 1969 with his eye-opening participation in a three-artist show at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, a now-defunct museum. He hung huge, brightly painted curtains from the skylights of the four-story atrium of the 1897 Beaux-Arts building.

The colorful garlands were in stark contrast to the elegantly traditional room that faced the White House. Many black artists of the time created paintings and sculptures in figurative modes depicting social and political issues. At the height of the civil rights movement in the nation’s capital, Gilliam’s imaginative abstract gesture that celebrates artistic differences was immediately embraced.

Born in Tupelo, Miss., the seventh of eight children to a seamstress and carpenter, Gilliam received his Bachelor of Arts and Masters 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 in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and other museums worldwide.

After the Corcoran exhibition, Gilliam had many exhibitions over the next half century, but his work rarely appeared in Los Angeles. He was almost 80 years old when he opened his first solo exhibition in a gallery here at the David Kordansky Gallery in 2013, where he has exhibited three times since then.

Gilliam’s marriage to Washington Post reporter Dorothy Butler ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, the Washington art dealer Annie Gawlak, three daughters from his first marriage and three siblings. Commentary: Why the late Sam Gilliam’s inventive abstract drapes celebrated artistic difference

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