Sam Gilliam, who made painting sculptural, has died aged 88

Sam Gilliam. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, and Pace Gallery. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio

Sam Gilliam (1933–2022), whose breakthrough work involved unhooking his canvases from the stretchers, making them sculptural, has died aged 88.

Gilliam gained initial attention as part of the Washington Color School, alongside peers including Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis. It was his Drape paintings however, started in 1968, that brought him to fore. The artist would let his paint roll around the canvas, so that tones merged with each other. The largescale canvases were then knotted in parts to hang concertinaed, elegantly crumpled, from the gallery ceiling.

Sam Gilliam, Unpainted, 2018 at Art Basel Unlimited 2018
Sam Gilliam, Unpainted, 2018, at Art Basel Unlimited 2018

Fan Craze (1973) for example is rich mix of very deep red in which yellow and blue emerged in barer patches. The canvas has then been scrunched so it recalls the appearance of a four-petalled flower or, as the title suggests, the blades of an electric desk fan.

Bringing painting into the sculptural space won him plaudits from fellow artists and critics alike – the innovation regarded as comparable to his contemporary Jackson Pollock. In 1972 he became the first Black artist to show at the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Unlike Pollock however, Gilliam’s fame waned, in part because, as an African-American artist making abstract work without any allusions to his race, it could not be instrumentalised or placed in an identity-based canon.

It was not until 2012 that his work was reevaluated, following an approach by artist Rashid Johnson and gallerist David Kordansky about the possibility of doing a show. Renewed institutional recognition followed, with exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Dia:Beacon, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland.

Gilliam died 25 June and is survived by his wife and three children.

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