One of America’s most important and influential abstract visual painters has died. Sam Gilliam, a legendary colorist whose work impacted generations of artists, died at the age of 88. Pace Gallery and David Kordansky Gallery, which have represented him since 2019, reported his death.

Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, as the seventh of eight children to a railroad worker father and a housewife mother. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Louisville, but in 1962 he relocated to Washington, D.C., where he lived and maintained his studio for the remainder of his life.

According to The Pace Gallery, Gilliam was one of the painters involved with the Washington Color School, which was a movement started in D.C. in the 1950s that included huge fields of color as a counter to the Abstract Expressionist works that arose from the New York School.

He was particularly interested in liberating his paintings from the confines of canvases and frames. Instead, in his Drape paintings from the 1960s, he hung unstretched canvases from ceilings or tacked them to walls in huge cascades. His work — half painting, part sculpture — was exhibited differently in each exhibition, never in the same manner twice.

He richly painted canvases in the late 1970s, then chopped out and rearranged geometric designs. The end design evoked both African American quilts and jazz improvisations, which he adored.

Sam Gilliam: Full Circle is currently on display at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., through September 11, while his sculpture Double Merge is on display at Dia Beacon in Beacon, N.Y.

Gilliam also had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Whitney Museum, as well as the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. He received the Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award from the United States State Department in 2015.



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Ashton Horne is an upcoming writer who currently resides in Harford County. He currently interns for TheDMVDaily as a journalist.

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