Sam Gilliam, dead at 88, freed the painting from its usual form

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Throughout the 20th century, several radical artists tackled the canvas. They ripped it from the frame, sliced ​​it with a knife, burned holes in it and shot it, sometimes with paint, sometimes with more lethal ammunition. The canvas has become a metaphor for art and society, for old ways, for the oppressive and unchanging weight of complacency and cruelty woven into so much of the man-made world.

Sam Gilliam didn’t attack the canvas, he freed it. The accolade was key to his career and the affection so many felt for the artist, who died on Saturday at the age of 88. Gilliam lived a long, productive life, and his artistic journey was extremely varied and tirelessly inventive. But it is work he began to do in the mid to late 1960s, using the unstretched and draped canvases for which he is best known, and which ensured both his entry and his permanent place in the art world at large. His draped works are ubiquitous, essential to any study of mid-century abstraction and 20th-century American art. Anyone who has visited a great art museum has encountered one.

Photos: Sam Gilliam, one of the nation’s most renowned black artists, dies at 88

Sometimes they hang from the ceiling, like colored tents. Sometimes they hang on the wall, pinned in irregular folds like laundry on a clothesline (a suggestion he resisted). Others look a bit like robes on the back of an invisible figure retreating into the wall. And still others take turns and follow the lines of the architecture, as if hiding a living form moving in space.

Gilliam is considered the first artist to free paint from its frames, giving it a flat, two-dimensional shape, often a square or rectangle. But for decades before Gilliam’s arrival on the scene in the 1960s, artists were interested in the space behind and around the painting, and in making paintings without edges or boundaries. Painting as a rectilinear portal onto the world belonged, it seems at the time, to an era of pure illusionism.

Better to make the black image plain, as Kazimir Malevich did in the years before World War I, concentrating viewers on its surface and the painting itself, while simultaneously denying them the pretty view of landscapes or naked women they had been trained to dream of.

Other artists cut into the canvas, as Luciano Fontana did on monochrome canvases in the late 1950s. These slices transformed absence – the fissure of nothingness left by the knife – into new types of painting , swollen lines of darkness looming over the picture plane. And they invited restless eyes to reflect on what lies behind the canvas, in this silent, empty space that we are never meant to see.

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But Gilliam’s job was not to deprive anyone of a view or to cut into the once sacred geometry of the image. There were no nicks, no knives, and no rough treatment of the canvas. It was an offering. He wanted to bring painting into the viewer’s space, push it into the world.

“The surface is no longer the final plane of the work,” he said in 1989–90 interviews with his wife, Annie Gawlak, the DC gallery owner who survives him. “It is rather the beginning of a step forward in the theater of life.”

It was the hope of a more intense, more immediate, more intimate conversation.

Gilliam was born in 1933 during the Great Depression, in Tupelo, Mississippi. His success as an artist is measured not only by his accomplishments, notably by being the first African-American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, in 1972. It must also be measured by the enormous obstacles that he overcame.

He was not just a black artist at a time when opportunities for black artists to exhibit their work, build careers, and be treated with respect as equal contributors by curators, critics, gallery owners and collectors were very limited. He was also a black artist who focused on abstraction, resisting pressure from the African-American community to create work that more explicitly engaged with racism, poverty, and inequality. He was not personally disengaged from politics and cited 1968 as a volatile year of revelation and determination (“something was in the air”, he said) that influenced his work. But his art channels urgency into forms decidedly different from the politically more demonstrative art of his contemporaries.

Gilliam was also deeply committed to art history, and it may have seemed to his critics that what he was doing was valuable, insular, even academic. He cites Rembrandt, Murillo, Braque, Picasso and Cézanne as sources of inspiration and sees himself as continuing the dialogue with the visual world embodied in the work of these artists. He pushed, pushed, tested the same questions of vision that these painters had explored for centuries.

His work often delights, and this too has been a source of criticism, one of the perverse legacies of the 20th century belief in art as social provocation and revolution.

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The delight is often in the ease of the work, especially the draped works, which flow according to curves dictated more by gravity than by human intervention. The idea that some of these sculptural paintings or painted sculptures looked like laundry on a line was a clumsy effort to equate them with something less than art. But no one hangs their own laundry carelessly or carelessly. Unlike other artists in conflict with the canvas, it can be said of Gilliam’s work: No canvas was damaged in the making of this painting.

Gilliam built an international career from a base in Washington, another small miracle of his extraordinary life. His work is all over Washington (and some of his more recent work is now on display at the Hirshhorn). Sometimes it seemed like you couldn’t open a major museum, art installation, or atrium without a Sam Gilliam somewhere in sight. This perhaps suggests a certain lack of inspiration on the part of public art sponsors. But it also made Gilliam’s work feel like an essential guardian of Washington’s architecture. It’s the awesome home god of our public space.

Humans supposedly respond to stress with fight or flight. Maybe. But they also make art, a third option, full of grace and hope as well as powerful forms of resistance. Sam Gilliam lived through some of the darkest decades in American history, and he died as America seems determined to rekindle the old demons of its tortured history. The fun of Gilliam’s work is that he lives in this third space, between or beyond fight or flight. He made the world more beautiful, which is always revolutionary, no matter how big or small, stretched or hanging like a hammock on a summer day.

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