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Thomas Sills: Variegations, Paintings from the 1950s-70s


Eric Firestone Gallery is pleased to present the exhibition

THOMAS SILLS: VARIEGATIONS, PAINTINGS FROM THE 1950s -70s,

accompanied by a digital catalog and online viewing room.  The gallery also announces exclusive representation of the estate of Thomas Sills.

Thomas Sills with paintings in his West 11th St. studio, 1956

Thomas Sills with paintings in his West 11th St. studio, 1956


 

Thomas Sills (1914 - 2000) was a significant African-American artist who created a major body of abstract paintings that respond to process, natural phenomena and forces. The paintings, which have a delicate and unusual palette, synthesize the figure/ ground relationship with optical equivalencies between colors, and free-flowing, outwardly-radiating patterns.

Sills, who grew up in Castalia, North Carolina in a large family, was not exposed to art or art-making in his youth or young adulthood. He began to paint – almost clandestinely – in his late 30s, and went on to be the subject of four well-received solo shows at Betty Parsons between 1955 and 1961. His work was also acquired by a long roster of significant museums across the country, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

At age 9, in North Carolina, Sills worked after school in a greenhouse – an experience he enjoyed and which he credits as influencing the color and light of his paintings. His boss encouraged him to move north, and at age 11, Sills arrived in Brooklyn to stay with an older brother.  He spent the next twenty years working various jobs and starting a family with his first wife.

While working as a superintendent for a church in Greenwich Village, and doing delivery for a neighborhood liquor shop, Sills met artist Jeanne Reynal (1904  – 1984), the mosaicist whose estate Eric Firestone Gallery also represents. Reynal and Sills became involved and married in 1953.

Reynal was a significant figure at the intersection of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism – a patron as well as a radically innovative artist. Through her, Sills met a wide range of artists: from Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, to Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko.  He was also surrounded, in their West 11th Street home, by her collection of these artists’ work.

Thomas Sills with his wife Jeanne Reynal in front of a work by Roberta Matta in their Greenwich Village home, 1958 photo by Juster-Cook. 

Thomas Sills with his wife Jeanne Reynal in front of a work by Roberta Matta in their Greenwich Village home, 1958 photo by Juster-Cook. 

At age 9, in North Carolina, Sills worked after school in a greenhouse – an experience he enjoyed and which he credits as influencing the color and light of his paintings. His boss encouraged him to move north, and at age 11, Sills arrived in Brooklyn to stay with an older brother.  He spent the next twenty years working various jobs and starting a family with his first wife.

While working as a superintendent for a church in Greenwich Village, and doing delivery for a neighborhood liquor shop, Sills met artist Jeanne Reynal (1904  – 1984), the mosaicist whose estate Eric Firestone Gallery also represents. Reynal and Sills became involved and married in 1953.

Reynal was a significant figure at the intersection of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism – a patron as well as a radically innovative artist. Through her, Sills met a wide range of artists: from Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, to Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko.  He was also surrounded, in their West 11th Street home, by her collection of these artists’ work.

Slide-Show

Slide-Show Thumbnails
Thomas Sills, The Morning, 1954

Thomas Sills

The Morning, 1954

oil on canvas

42h x 44w in
106.68h x 111.76w cm

THSIL007

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Easter Holliday, 1955

Thomas Sills

Easter Holliday, 1955

oil on canvas

49h x 41w in
124.46h x 104.14w cm

THSIL030

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Still Pond, 1956

Thomas Sills

Still Pond, 1956

oil on canvas

37h x 49w in
93.98h x 124.46w cm

THSIL002

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Travel, 1958

Thomas Sills

Travel, 1958

oil on canvas

49h x 60w in
124.46h x 152.40w cm

THSIL012

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Merry-Go-Round, 1958

Thomas Sills

Merry-Go-Round, 1958

oil on canvas

49h x 24w in
124.46h x 60.96w cm

THSIL174

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Native Dancer, 1958

Thomas Sills

Native Dancer, 1958

oil on canvas

45 1/2h x 69w in
115.57h x 175.26w cm

THSIL013

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Untitled, 1958

Thomas Sills

Untitled, 1958

oil on canvas

39h x 48w in
99.06h x 121.92w cm

THSIL015

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Grey Black, 1960

Thomas Sills

Grey Black, 1960

oil on canvas

47h x 50w in
119.38h x 127w cm

THSIL079

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Mixed Earth, 1960

Thomas Sills

Mixed Earth, 1960

oil on canvas

46h x 48w in
116.84h x 121.92w cm

THSIL014

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Nilotic Waters, 1960

Thomas Sills

Nilotic Waters, 1960

oil on canvas

84h x 68w in
213.36h x 172.72w cm

THSIL075

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Earth, 1960

Thomas Sills

Earth, 1960

oil on canvas

44h x 44w in
111.76h x 111.76w cm

THSIL051

Inquire
Thomas Sills, The Tree and the River, 1964

Thomas Sills

The Tree and the River, 1964

oil on canvas

68h x 69w in
172.72h x 175.26w cm

THSIL041

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Arctic Weapon, 1965

Thomas Sills

Arctic Weapon, 1965

oil on canvas

55h x 49w in
139.70h x 124.46w cm

THSIL152

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Untitled, 1968

Thomas Sills

Untitled, 1968

oil on canvas

50h x 50w in
127h x 127w cm

THSIL142

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Red Hour, 1968

Thomas Sills

Red Hour, 1968

oil on canvas

40h x 44w in
101.60h x 111.76w cm

THSIL297

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Mix Day, 1969

Thomas Sills

Mix Day, 1969

oil on canvas

49h x 50w in
124.46h x 127w cm

THSIL149

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Untitled, 1970s

Thomas Sills

Untitled, 1970s

oil on canvas

30h x 40w in
76.20h x 101.60w cm

THSIL101

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Yellow Green, 1973

Thomas Sills

Yellow Green, 1973

oil on canvas

30h x 40w in
76.20h x 101.60w cm

THSIL195

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Little Water Fall, 1973

Thomas Sills

Little Water Fall, 1973

oil on canvas

40h x 30w in
101.60h x 76.20w cm

THSIL329

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Window, 1973

Thomas Sills

Window, 1973

oil on canvas

40h x 30w in
101.60h x 76.20w cm

THSIL335

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Son Bright, 1975

Thomas Sills

Son Bright, 1975

oil on canvas

50h x 50w in
127h x 127w cm

THSIL043

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Untitled, 1975

Thomas Sills

Untitled, 1975

oil on canvas

50h x 50w in
127h x 127w cm

THSIL059

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Untitled (white painting), 1975

Thomas Sills

Untitled (white painting), 1975

oil on canvas

30h x 40w in
76.20h x 101.60w cm

Framed: 30h x 40w in
76.20h x 101.60w cm

THSIL340

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Out, 1975

Thomas Sills

Out, 1975

oil on canvas

49h x 50w in
124.46h x 127w cm

THSIL161

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Burnt Forest, 1975

Thomas Sills

Burnt Forest, 1975

oil on canvas

49h x 46w in
124.46h x 116.84w cm

THSIL090

Inquire
Thomas Sills, The Morning, 1954

Thomas Sills

The Morning, 1954

oil on canvas

42h x 44w in
106.68h x 111.76w cm

THSIL007

Thomas Sills, Easter Holliday, 1955

Thomas Sills

Easter Holliday, 1955

oil on canvas

49h x 41w in
124.46h x 104.14w cm

THSIL030

Thomas Sills, Still Pond, 1956

Thomas Sills

Still Pond, 1956

oil on canvas

37h x 49w in
93.98h x 124.46w cm

THSIL002

Thomas Sills, Travel, 1958

Thomas Sills

Travel, 1958

oil on canvas

49h x 60w in
124.46h x 152.40w cm

THSIL012

Thomas Sills, Merry-Go-Round, 1958

Thomas Sills

Merry-Go-Round, 1958

oil on canvas

49h x 24w in
124.46h x 60.96w cm

THSIL174

Thomas Sills, Native Dancer, 1958

Thomas Sills

Native Dancer, 1958

oil on canvas

45 1/2h x 69w in
115.57h x 175.26w cm

THSIL013

Thomas Sills, Untitled, 1958

Thomas Sills

Untitled, 1958

oil on canvas

39h x 48w in
99.06h x 121.92w cm

THSIL015

Thomas Sills, Grey Black, 1960

Thomas Sills

Grey Black, 1960

oil on canvas

47h x 50w in
119.38h x 127w cm

THSIL079

Thomas Sills, Mixed Earth, 1960

Thomas Sills

Mixed Earth, 1960

oil on canvas

46h x 48w in
116.84h x 121.92w cm

THSIL014

Thomas Sills, Nilotic Waters, 1960

Thomas Sills

Nilotic Waters, 1960

oil on canvas

84h x 68w in
213.36h x 172.72w cm

THSIL075

Thomas Sills, Earth, 1960

Thomas Sills

Earth, 1960

oil on canvas

44h x 44w in
111.76h x 111.76w cm

THSIL051

Thomas Sills, The Tree and the River, 1964

Thomas Sills

The Tree and the River, 1964

oil on canvas

68h x 69w in
172.72h x 175.26w cm

THSIL041

Thomas Sills, Arctic Weapon, 1965

Thomas Sills

Arctic Weapon, 1965

oil on canvas

55h x 49w in
139.70h x 124.46w cm

THSIL152

Thomas Sills, Untitled, 1968

Thomas Sills

Untitled, 1968

oil on canvas

50h x 50w in
127h x 127w cm

THSIL142

Thomas Sills, Red Hour, 1968

Thomas Sills

Red Hour, 1968

oil on canvas

40h x 44w in
101.60h x 111.76w cm

THSIL297

Thomas Sills, Mix Day, 1969

Thomas Sills

Mix Day, 1969

oil on canvas

49h x 50w in
124.46h x 127w cm

THSIL149

Thomas Sills, Untitled, 1970s

Thomas Sills

Untitled, 1970s

oil on canvas

30h x 40w in
76.20h x 101.60w cm

THSIL101

Thomas Sills, Yellow Green, 1973

Thomas Sills

Yellow Green, 1973

oil on canvas

30h x 40w in
76.20h x 101.60w cm

THSIL195

Thomas Sills, Little Water Fall, 1973

Thomas Sills

Little Water Fall, 1973

oil on canvas

40h x 30w in
101.60h x 76.20w cm

THSIL329

Thomas Sills, Window, 1973

Thomas Sills

Window, 1973

oil on canvas

40h x 30w in
101.60h x 76.20w cm

THSIL335

Thomas Sills, Son Bright, 1975

Thomas Sills

Son Bright, 1975

oil on canvas

50h x 50w in
127h x 127w cm

THSIL043

Thomas Sills, Untitled, 1975

Thomas Sills

Untitled, 1975

oil on canvas

50h x 50w in
127h x 127w cm

THSIL059

Thomas Sills, Untitled (white painting), 1975

Thomas Sills

Untitled (white painting), 1975

oil on canvas

30h x 40w in
76.20h x 101.60w cm

Framed: 30h x 40w in
76.20h x 101.60w cm

THSIL340

Thomas Sills, Out, 1975

Thomas Sills

Out, 1975

oil on canvas

49h x 50w in
124.46h x 127w cm

THSIL161

Thomas Sills, Burnt Forest, 1975

Thomas Sills

Burnt Forest, 1975

oil on canvas

49h x 46w in
124.46h x 116.84w cm

THSIL090

Thumb-Show

Thumb-Show Thumbnails
Thomas Sills, Untitled, 1968

Thomas Sills

Untitled, 1968

oil on canvas

50h x 50w in

Inquire
Thomas Sills, The Tree and the River, 1964

Thomas Sills

The Tree and the River, 1964

oil on canvas

68h x 69w in

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Mix Day, 1969

Thomas Sills

Mix Day, 1969

oil on canvas

49h x 50w in

Inquire
Thomas Sills, Untitled, 1968

Thomas Sills

Untitled, 1968

oil on canvas

50h x 50w in

Thomas Sills, The Tree and the River, 1964

Thomas Sills

The Tree and the River, 1964

oil on canvas

68h x 69w in

Thomas Sills, Mix Day, 1969

Thomas Sills

Mix Day, 1969

oil on canvas

49h x 50w in

Thomas Sills, Landlocked, 1960, Collection of MoMA, New York

Thomas Sills, Landlocked, 1960, Collection of MoMA, New York

In addition to his exhibitions with Betty Parsons, Sills exhibited with Paul Kantor Gallery, Los Angeles; and had a two-person exhibition with Reynal at the New School for Social Research, New York.  In the 1960s and early 70s, he showed with Bodley Gallery, New York.  He was the subject of solo exhibitions at Creighton University, Omaha, NE; and the Art Association of Newport, RI. Sills was also included in several important historic exhibitions of African-American artists in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Lawrence Campbell was the critic of the period who wrote most consistently on Sills’s work. In a small monograph published by the William and Noma Copley Foundation in 1962, Campbell writes: “Sills’s paintings seem profoundly American. Out of them something tender and reassuring seems to be rising. It is like a voice from the people heard above the mass media of our time.”

 

In his first forays into painting, Sills applied magnesite plaster from Reynal’s studio to discarded wood panels. Ideas about surrealist automatism and experimentation resonate in Sills’s early work. He was encouraged by Reynal and by Willem de Kooning to keep painting without any formal study.  Sills did not use brushes; instead, he applied paint with rags and cloths. This gives his work a unique softness.  Colors meld into one another at the edges, lending the paintings tactility, space, and an inner light.

By 1955, Sills had developed a unified group of paintings with central forms suggesting birds, nests, apertures, nebulae and eyes. These works formed his first solo show at Betty Parsons.  They have qualities associated with American visionary painter Arthur Dove. The critic Parker Tyler, in an ARTnews review, described them having “the terror of nightmares with desire and pleasure at their core.” By the mid-to-late 1950s, these allusions dissolved into abstraction. Still, the paintings have an energy at their center which generates movement and radiates outwards.

In his first forays into painting, Sills applied magnesite plaster from Reynal’s studio to discarded wood panels. Ideas about surrealist automatism and experimentation resonate in Sills’s early work. He was encouraged by Reynal and by Willem de Kooning to keep painting without any formal study.  Sills did not use brushes; instead, he applied paint with rags and cloths. This gives his work a unique softness.  Colors meld into one another at the edges, lending the paintings tactility, space, and an inner light.

By 1955, Sills had developed a unified group of paintings with central forms suggesting birds, nests, apertures, nebulae and eyes. These works formed his first solo show at Betty Parsons.  They have qualities associated with American visionary painter Arthur Dove. The critic Parker Tyler, in an ARTnews review, described them having “the terror of nightmares with desire and pleasure at their core.” By the mid-to-late 1950s, these allusions dissolved into abstraction. Still, the paintings have an energy at their center which generates movement and radiates outwards.

In addition to his exhibitions with Betty Parsons, Sills exhibited with Paul Kantor Gallery, Los Angeles; and had a two-person exhibition with Reynal at the New School for Social Research, New York.  In the 1960s and early 70s, he showed with Bodley Gallery, New York.  He was the subject of solo exhibitions at Creighton University, Omaha, NE; and the Art Association of Newport, RI. Sills was also included in several important historic exhibitions of African-American artists in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Lawrence Campbell was the critic of the period who wrote most consistently on Sills’s work. In a small monograph published by the William and Noma Copley Foundation in 1962, Campbell writes: “Sills’s paintings seem profoundly American. Out of them something tender and reassuring seems to be rising. It is like a voice from the people heard above the mass media of our time.”

 

Thomas Sills said of his work:

"The main thing for me when I work is to say something worthwhile. My eyes must be open to see some of the good things. What I think about when I start painting is paint. A painter should paint only the way he wants to paint. There are no rules about it. I try not to destroy what comes out of my paintings. I don’t fight it but let whatever is there, come out."

 

 

Thomas Sills: Variegations, Paintings 1950s-70s

Will be on view at: Eric Firestone Gallery, 4 Great Jones Street, 3rd floor, New York, NY through Februay 26, 2022