Art & Culture

Rake and Furrow: Artforum Gives Sam Gilliam Cover Treatment and Considers His Unique Approach to Abstract Painting

A FIELD OF FROSTY WHITE flecked with hues of blue, violet, green, and pink, “Foggy” (2021) by Sam Gilliam (1933-2022) graces the cover of the November 2023 edition of Artforum. Inside, an essay by Julia Bryan-Wilson explores the unique characteristics that distinguish Gilliam’s abstract paintings and connects his techniques to Black women’s labor.

Gilliam is best known for his large-scale beveled edge paintings, which fetch top prices at auction (the artist’s current record is nearly $2.2 million), and his color-soaked sculptural paintings that are unsupported by stretchers and displayed in dramatic fashion, draped across walls and suspended from ceilings.


Artforum, November 2023: SAM GILLIAM, Detail of “Foggy,” 2021 (acrylic, aluminum granules, copper chop, sawdust, flocking, encaustic, and paper collage on canvas, 96 × 96 × 4 inches. | © Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Bryan-Wilson doesn’t focus on those works, but rather considers paintings by Gilliam that are defined by their “textural materiality.” The paintings have textured surfaces built up with layers of pigment; raked surfaces yielding parallel “rhythmic grooves”; and collage formats achieved by cutting up existing paintings and piecing the remnants together to form new compositions in the patchwork style of a quilt.

“Gilliam’s solicitation of touch in his paintings—his enfleshment of abstraction—has political ramifications that are in dialogue with Black feminist practices and are made manifest in the way the works look as well as in how they were made,” Bryan-Wilson wrote. “Though his radically supple unstretched paintings have been rightly at the center of much of the art-historical literature about Gilliam to date, this incarnated politics is also apparent in other aspects of his process, namely, his patchworked canvases and raked furrows.”

Her essay is titled “The Rake and the Furrow: The art of Sam Gilliam” and quotes curators and scholars Fred Moten, Valerie Cassel Oliver, bell hooks (1952-2021), Daonne Huff, and Sylvia Wynter.


SAM GILLIAM, Detail of “Foggy,” 2021 (acrylic, aluminum granules, copper chop, sawdust, flocking, encaustic, and paper collage on canvas, 96 × 96 × 4 inches. | © Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


BORN IN TUPELO, MISS., Gilliam lived and worked in Washington throughout most of his career. Early on, at the height of the civil rights era when Black artists were expected to produce work that was representational, political, or both, Gilliam embraced abstraction, forging his own path. In 1972, he was the first African American artist to show his work at the Venice Biennale, where he was featured in a group show organized by Walter Hopps in the American Pavilion.

Late in life, he joined Pace Gallery in 2019. “Sam Gilliam: The Last Five Years” (Sept. 15-Oct. 28, 2023) was recently on view at Pace New York. Also in New York, Pace Prints is currently presenting “Sam Gilliam: Make it Wonderful” through Nov. 18.

Bryan-Wilson is a widely published critic and professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University, where she focuses on contemporary art and LGBTQ+ theory. She is the author of four books including “Louise Nevelson’s Sculpture: Drag, Color, Join, Face” (2023).

In the Artforum essay, Bryan-Wilson assessed Gilliam’s last paintings, made between 2020 and 2022, including the cover work, “Foggy.” The painting was presented in a 2021 exhibition at Pace Hong Kong, marking Gilliam’s debut in Asia.

“The metaphors that come to my mind when I’m in front of these paintings are partly geologic (strata, sedimentation, igneous rock formations) and partly culinary—I think of baked confections, of frosting and sprinkles, of licking and tasting,” she wrote. “The dreamy whitish-bluish Foggy, from 2021, has a gouge near its center, and underneath the edge of this slit lies a purple world of mystery.” CT


SAM GILLIAM, Detail of “Foggy,” 2021 (acrylic, aluminum granules, copper chop, sawdust, flocking, encaustic, and paper collage on canvas, 96 × 96 × 4 inches. | © Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


FIND MORE On Oct. 26, Artforum fired its editor in chief David Velasco after the magazine published an open letter about the Israel-Hamas War with 8,000 signatures from the arts community. The Oct. 19 letter rejected violence against all citizens and called for Palestinian liberation and a cease fire in Gaza. In response to Velasco’s dismissal, staffers demanded his reinstatement and artists Nicole Eisenman and Nan Goldin said they will cease working with the magazine, which is owned by Penske Media Corporation. On the morning of Nov. 9, Velasco was still listed as editor on Artforum’s leadership page


Newly published, “Sam Gilliam: The Last Five Years” features an essay by Lowery Stokes Sims. From 2021, “Sam Gilliam” includes an interview with the artist conducted by Hans Ulrich Obrist and contributions by Courtney Martin and Fred Moten. Earlier volumes include “Sam Gilliam: The Music of Color: 1967–1973” and “Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective.” Also consider, “Beauty Born of Struggle: The Art of Black Washington,” which is edited by Jeffrey C. Stewart and published earlier this year.


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