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Visual artist Sam Gilliam has died at 88

Artist Sam Gilliam, photographed in 2016 in Washington, D.C.
Marvin Joseph
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The Washington Post via Getty Images
Artist Sam Gilliam, photographed in 2016 in Washington, D.C.

Updated June 27, 2022 at 5:29 PM ET

One of the most important and influential abstract visual artists in the U.S. has died: Sam Gilliam, a great colorist whose work influenced generations of artists, was 88 years old. Gilliam's death on Saturday was announced by the Pace Gallery, which had represented him since 2019, and the David Kordansky Gallery, which had represented him since 2012. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Miss., in 1933 as the seventh child of eight to a father who worked on the railroad and a homemaking mother. He attended the University of Louisville for both bachelor's and master's degrees, but in 1962 moved to Washington, D.C., where he lived and had his studio for the rest of his life. He became one of the leading artists of the Washington Color School — a 1950s movement that emphasized large fields of color.

He was very interested in freeing his paintings from the boundaries of canvases and frames. Instead, in his Drape works of the 1960s, he took unstretched canvases and hung them from ceilings or pinned them in great waterfalls to walls. Each time his work — part painting, part sculpture — was installed in an exhibition, it hung differently, never the same way twice.

In a 2018 Morning Edition profile, Gilliam explained that the intention behind his Drape work was "to develop the idea of movement into shapes" — and that he was inspired by laundry hanging from a clothesline.

During the late 1970s, he thickly painted canvases, and then cut out and rearranged geometric shapes. The results evoked both African American quilts and the improvisations of the jazz music he loved.

Sam Gilliam's "Seahorses," 1975, installed outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Johansen Krause / Sam Gilliam, David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery
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Sam Gilliam, David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery
Sam Gilliam's "Seahorses," 1975, installed outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 2016, Gilliam debuted a 28-foot public work commissioned by the then-new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

His work is represented in the collections of some of the world's most celebrated museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Tate Modern in London; and the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris.

The art installation "Change" of Sam Gilliam can be seen in Cologne, Germany, 22 June 2017.
/ Photo by Oliver Berg/picture alliance via Getty Images
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Photo by Oliver Berg/picture alliance via Getty Images
The art installation "Change" of Sam Gilliam can be seen in Cologne, Germany, 22 June 2017.

Currently, the exhibition Sam Gilliam: Full Circle is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., through Sept. 11, and his work Double Merge is on view at Dia Beacon in Beacon, N.Y.

Gilliam was also the recipient of solo shows at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Whitney Museum, as well as at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. In 2015, he was awarded the U.S. State Department's Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.

In the 2018 Morning Edition profile, the then 84-year-old Gilliam said that he felt that he was in his prime, despite health challenges. "I've never felt better in my life. I stopped drinking, I stopped smoking. I live for this period of being in the studio and actually working."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.