WASHINGTON – Throughout the 20th century, more than a few radical artists attacked the canvas. They ripped it out of the frame, cut it open with a knife, burned holes in it, and shot at it, sometimes with paint, sometimes with deadlier ammunition. Canvas became a metaphor for art and society, for the ancient ways of doing things, for the oppressive, 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. That distinction was crucial 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 life, a productive one, and his artistic adventure was enormously varied and tirelessly inventive. But it was work he began doing in the mid to late 1960s, using unstretched, draped canvas for which he is best known, and which secured both his entry and his permanent place in the larger art world. His draped work is ubiquitous and essential to any survey of mid-century abstraction and 20th-century American art. Everyone who has visited a major art museum has encountered one.
Sometimes they hang from the ceiling like colorful tents. Sometimes they hang on the wall, folded irregularly like laundry on a clothesline (a suggestion he objected to). Others look a bit like clothes on the back of an invisible figure retreating into the wall. And still others bend corners and follow the lines of architecture as if concealing a living form moving through space.
Gilliam is credited with being the first artist to free the painting from its stretcher bars, which give it a flat, two-dimensional shape, often a square or rectangle. But for decades before Gilliam came onto the scene in the 1960s, artists were interested in the space behind and around the painting and in paintings that had no edges or borders. Painting as a linear portal to the world, it seemed at the time, belonged to an age of mere illusionism.
It is better to make the picture all black, as Kazimir Malevich did in the years before World War I, focusing the viewer on its surface and the paint itself, while denying him the pretty glimpse of landscapes or naked women, according to which he was trained.
Other artists cut into the canvas, as Luciano Fontana did with monochrome canvases in the late 1950s. These cuts turned the absence – the tear of the void left by the knife – into new kinds of color, swelling dark lines that arched across the picture plane. And they invited restless eyes to contemplate what lies beyond the screen, in that still, empty space we should never see.
But Gilliam’s work was not about blocking someone’s gaze or interfering with the image’s once sacred geometry. There were no cuts, no knives, and no rough treatment of the canvas. It was an offer. He wanted to bring the painting into the viewer’s space, push it out into the world.
“The surface is no longer the final level of the work,” he said in 1989-1990 interviews with his wife Annie Gawlak, the DC gallery owner who survives him. “Rather, it is the beginning of a foray into the theater of life.”
It was about the hope for a more intensive, more direct, more intimate conversation.
Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933 during the Great Depression. His success as an artist need not be measured solely by his accomplishments, including his being the first African-American artist to represent the United States at the 1972 Venice Biennale. It must also be measured by the tremendous obstacles he overcame.
He was not just a black artist at a time when there were severely limited opportunities for black artists to exhibit their work, build careers, and be treated with respect as equal contributors by curators, critics, gallerists, and collectors. He was also a Black artist who focused on abstraction and resisted pressures within the African American community to make work more explicitly about racism, poverty, and inequality. Personally not detached from politics, he called 1968 a volatile year of revelation and determination (“something was in the air,” he said) that influenced his work. But his art channeled urgency into forms that were decidedly different from the more politically demonstrative art of his contemporaries.
Gilliam was also deeply involved in art history, and what he did may have struck his critics as valuable, isolated, even academic. Citing Rembrandt, Murillo, Braque, Picasso and Cézanne as inspirations, he saw himself as continuing the dialogue with the visual world embodied in the works of these artists. He pushed, prodded, and tested the same questions of seeing that these painters had explored for centuries.
His work often delights, and that too has been a source of criticism, one of the perverse legacies of the 20th century’s belief in art as social provocation and revolution.
The joy often lies in the lightness of the work, particularly the draped works that flow following curves dictated more by gravity than human intervention. The idea that some of these sculptural paintings or painted sculptures resemble laundry on a line was a clumsy attempt to equate them with anything less than art. But no one hangs their own laundry recklessly or carelessly. In contrast to other artists who deal with the canvas, one can say of Gilliam’s work: No canvas was damaged in the production of this painting.
Gilliam built an international career from his home base in Washington, another small miracle of his extraordinary life. His work can be seen all over Washington (and some of his most recent work can now be seen at the Hirshhorn). Sometimes it seemed like you couldn’t open a great museum, art facility, or atrium without having a Sam Gilliam in sight somewhere. Perhaps this points to a certain lack of inspiration on the part of the processors of art in public space. But it also made Gilliam’s work feel like an essential custodian of Washington architecture. He is the ingenious household god of our public space.
People are said to respond to stress with either fight or flight. Maybe. But they also make art, a third option, full of grace and hope and powerful forms of resistance. Sam Gilliam lived through some of the darkest decades in American history and died just as America seems intent on reviving the old demons of its tormented history. The beauty of Gilliam’s work is that she lives in that third space, between or beyond fight or flight. He made the world more beautiful, which is always revolutionary, whether the canvas is big or small, stretched or hanging loose like a hammock on a summer day.