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Sam Gilliam, pioneering abstract artist, dies at 88

Updated 28th June 2022
Sam Gilliam photographed on June 22, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Sam Gilliam, pioneering abstract artist, dies at 88
Written by Jack Bantock, CNN
Sam Gilliam, the first Black artist to represent the US pavilion at the Venice Biennale, has died at the age of 88.
The American abstract artist died at home in Washington, DC, on Saturday, David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery, which represent his work, announced Monday.
Born in 1933 in Mississippi, Gilliam graduated with a master of arts degree in fine arts from the University of Louisville before moving to DC in 1962, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. There, he became an important figure associated with the Washington Color School, an abstract expressionist movement centered in color field painting.
Exploring Gilliam's 1969 work "Swing," the Smithsonian Institution described color field as "a style characterized by large abstract compositions created through color and form, rather than line and figuration."
Gilliam created the piece by folding the canvas sheets while the paint was still wet, before suspending it freely from the ceiling in his trademark Drape style, which he had pioneered midway through the 1960s. The process involved him separating canvases from their stretcher bars and draping them from walls and ceilings, or across the floor.
"The title [Swing] reflects the movement and the piece's shape, as well as Gilliam's desire to ​'just work and let things go' like the jazz musicians he often listened to in his studio," the Smithsonian noted.
London's Tate Modern featured Gilliam's 1970 work, "Carousel Change," in an exhibit titled "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power" in 2017.
Gilliam poses in his paint-splattered studio in Washington, DC in 1980.
Gilliam poses in his paint-splattered studio in Washington, DC in 1980. Credit: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
"It is no accident that Sam's breakthroughs came during the height of the civil rights movement," Kordansky noted in a statement on his gallery's website.
"He demanded that art, however abstract or resistant to discursive language, serve as nothing less than an artist's primary means of engaging with the world," Kordansky said.
In 1972, Gilliam became the first African American to present work at the Venice Biennale, an international festival of art and culture dating back to 1895. One of his Drape paintings -- "Yves Klein Blue" -- was shown at the exhibition in 2017.
He received the Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015 at the US Department of State's Art in Embassies event.
Gilliam's works are on display in a number of galleries and museums around the world, including the Tate Modern, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.
A man walks past Gilliam's work "untitled" during the preview day of Art Basel in 2018.
A man walks past Gilliam's work "untitled" during the preview day of Art Basel in 2018. Credit: Sebastian Bozon/AFP/Getty Images
Since joining the David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery in 2012 and 2019 respectively, his artworks have been showcased in a string of exhibitions, including 2021's "Moving West Again."
"He inspired the lives of many others, as a generous teacher, mischievous friend, and sage mentor," Kordansky said in his statement. "Above all, Sam embodied a vital spirit of freedom achieved with fearlessness, ferocity, sensitivity, and poetry."
Arne Glimcher, art dealer and founder of Pace Gallery, paid tribute to Gilliam in a separate statement published on Pace Gallery's website, calling the artist a "dear friend."
"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," he added.
Gilliam's family has requested that, instead of flowers, donations be made to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Children's Defense Fund, Rock Creek Conservancy, or an art institution of the donor's choice, according to the David Kordansky Gallery website.
An exhibition of Gilliam's work, including the last works he made before his death, are currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Titled "Full Circle," the show opened this past spring and will run through mid-September.