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Influential painter Sam Gilliam dies at the age of 88

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Posted at 7:00 PM, Jun 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-28 19:00:03-04

Groundbreaking and renowned painter Sam Gilliam has died at the age of 88 after leaving behind a body of pioneering artwork, including the stained draped canvases that he was famous for.

Gilliam had a great influence on his fellow artists and friends in the art world, managing to change how the world saw what a painting could be. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Gilliam produced innovative work in the color field space, becoming associated with the Washington Color School movement which came out of Washington, D.C. in the 1950s, putting a strong emphasis on large fields of color in an artist's work.

Gilliam was known for allowing himself to place minimal control over his art, experimenting with staining techniques, and permitting the pigments to soak into his pliant canvases in order to watch the stains diffuse.

Gilliam's friend, 85-year-old sculptor Melvin Edwards, said that their group was "always asking why the other had done something a certain way,” he told the New York Times. "That was the nature of Sam’s work: It always questioned space,” he said.

Gilliam was close friends with fellow artists like Edwards and painter William T. Williams who spoke multiple times a day and owned pieces of each other's work. 44-year-old Artist Rashid Johnson saw Gilliam as a role model telling the Times, “I knew his work far before we met, and he had so much influence on me.”

Gilliam's friends are working on how to best preserve his life's work and how to put his successes on display and tell the story of his decision to stay in Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has put some of Gilliam's work on display in an exhibit titled, "Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876-1968."

The museum wrote that Gilliam's work upheld "a personal commitment to creating innovative and colorful abstract works." The museum wrote of his influence saying, "He has been and will continue to be an inspiration to all artists with an idea and the determination to think outside the box to create masterpieces."