How to Read Sam Gilliam’s Formalism

“Blue 96″ Disc,” from 2020. Artwork by Sam Gilliam. Photograph by D'Angelo Lovell Williams for The New Yorker

Sam Gilliam, who has been known for his innovations in draping canvases while applying paint, has created gorgeous artwork for decades and is still going at age 86. Gilliam’s vibrant work, which includes some sculptural pieces, has never been easily understood as Black art in the formal sense of art depicting and pertaining to the lived conditions of Black people. Peter Schjeldahl for the New York Times considers Fred Moten’s assessment of the artist to think through why Gilliam hasn’t been situated as more important to the art historical canon.

“Seemingly decorative at first glance, the paintings turn inexhaustibly absorbing and exciting when contemplated. Like everything else in this show of an artist who is old in years, they feel defiantly brand spanking new.” - Peter Schjeldahl