Sam Gilliam, Groundbreaking Abstractionist, Dies at 88

Sam Gilliam, “10/27/69” (1969), acrylic on canvas installation, collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio)

Sam Gilliam, whose draping, color-drenched canvases insisted on the radical potential of abstraction, died at the age of 88 this Saturday, June 25. The cause was kidney failure. The news was confirmed by Pace and David Kordansky, the two galleries that jointly represent the artist.

Emerging at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a time when many Black American artists harnessed figuration to represent their reality and spur social change, Gilliam did not just pursue non-representational art but managed to turn it on its head. Inspired in part by women he saw hanging laundry on clotheslines from his studio window, he freed the canvas from the stretcher for his pivotal “Drape” paintings, suspending them from the ceiling or on the wall in sensual configurations that embrace the organic folds of fabric. It was the zenith of American postwar painting: Abstract Expressionism, the New York School, and the Color Field movement collided in a frenzy of drips, splashes, and egos, mostly those of a rather male and White coterie of artists. Gilliam, along with contemporaries like Howardena Pindell and Alma Thomas, made their mark on the medium while asserting the creative autonomy of Black artists in the United States.

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