Sam Gilliam, a pioneering abstract painter best known for his lusciously stained Drape paintings that took his medium more fully into three dimensions than any other artist of his generation, and who in 1972 became the first Black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, died on Saturday at his home in Washington. He was 88.
The death was announced by the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles and the Pace Gallery, New York. The cause was renal failure.
Mr. Gilliam was twice an anomaly. As a Black artist, he was largely ignored by the upper levels of the art world until late in his career. And as a Black artist committed to abstraction, he devoted his life to paintings that refrained from the recognizable images and overt political messages favored by many of his colleagues. Yet his art was in many ways opposed to both painting and political art.
Mr. Gilliam came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, a period of great experimentation for abstract painting and a time of social and political turmoil amid the Vietnam War and the Black struggle for civil rights. But even in this context he was especially daring.
A brilliant colorist, he became known for emancipating his paintings from the flat rectilinearity imposed by wood stretchers. Instead, he draped his unstretched abstract canvases from ceilings in great curves and loops, or pinned them, gathered, to walls.
In “‘A’ and the Carpenter, I” (1973), he piled a great swath of canvas painted with airy clouds of pink and blue between two wood sawhorses, introducing an element of manual labor into a work that seemed elegant, if unfinished, and that, like much of Gilliam’s work, appeared different each time it was installed.
His efforts hovered between painting and sculpture, while his techniques evoked everything from Jackson Pollock’s drips to tie-dye. They pushed the medium far beyond the wall-hung shaped canvases created at the time by Frank Stella and his followers. They were at once aggressive and lyrical, impinging on the viewer’s space and providing moments of gorgeous, flowing color while refusing a single, secure, centered point of view. And they challenged the viewer at every turn to decide: “Is this a painting?”
This in itself created a kind of visual tumult that suited the unsettled times. A painting in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art is simply titled “10/27/69,” placing itself against the backdrop of a period of massive protests against the war in Vietnam.
“The expressive act of making a mark and hanging it in space is always political,” he said in a 2018 interview with José da Silva in The Art Newspaper. “My work is as political as it is formal.”
A complete obituary will be published soon.