Abirpothi

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Sam Gilliam, American abstractionist and master of ‘drape paintings’, dies at 88

Sam Gilliam, an influential abstract painter from America, died on June 25 at 88 of kidney failure. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933 to a railroad worker father and a schoolteacher mother. The family soon moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where Gilliam later attended school at the University of Louisville and received a degree in fine art. After college, Gilliam served in the United States Army for several years. Upon leaving the army in 1958, he got a master’s degree in fine art from the University of Louisville and started teaching art at a Washington, D.C. high school. While Gilliam’s abstractions from the 1960s and ’70s remain his best-known ones, he continued to produce art in the following decades. 

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Gilliam’s unique abstractions included letting the paint run its course without any intervention from him. Often crumpled in what seemed to be a tentative yet elegant manner, Gilliam famously presented ‘3D’ canvasses or ‘drape paintings’ that gained him immediate and significant success. Even though this recognition came late in his life, he got an opportunity to display his work at Museum of Modern Art in New York, Dia:Beacon, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland. 

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He was the first Black artist to show at the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1972. He inspired many artists, including Rashid Johnson, who said that Gilliam’s art helped “define my relationship to race.” ARTnews reports how Gilliam’s early abstractions have thrilled critics such as Peter Schjeldahl, who praised him in the New Yorker in 2020 for “creating undulant environments that drenched the eye in effulgent color.” In 2005, the Corcoran staged the first-ever full-scale retrospective of his art. In 2018, a Kunstmuseum Basel retrospective in Switzerland brought Gilliam another wave of belated appreciation. Being based in Washington, D.C., reduced his chances of networking with the whos-who of the New York art world. He didn’t have a New York gallery until Pace took him on in 2019. However, content with his art, he found inspiration and camaderie in the Washington Colour School, a group of abstract artists. 

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Even though he famously said “Color doesn’t matter,” to the New York Times in 2018, speaking of race, many of his early works relate to the subject. ARTnews observes how a few of his paintings come with titles that appear to allude to sociopolitical issues; in particular, ones having to do with Blackness and Black figures. “Being black is a very important point of tension and self-discovery,” Gilliam said in his 1973 ARTnews interview. Following the assassination of in 1968, Gilliam made a series of abstractions alluding to Martin Luther King, Jr. after his assasination in 1968. Even so, he perhaps had an uncomfortable relationship with the term “Black art” and after showing at the Studio Museum in Harlem in “X to the 4th Power,” an important 1969 exhibition of abstract art by Black artists, he did not collaborate with the institution for 13 years. Read more on ARTnews. 

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