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Exhibition | Thomas Sills: Man of Color

Dec 18, 2021 — Continuing

Born to North Carolina sharecroppers in 1914, Thomas Sills took a circuitous path to achieve success as an artist. When he was only 11, he traveled by train from Raleigh to Harlem, where he stayed with an older brother. Over the years he worked a number of odd jobs, including theater doorman, church custodian, stevedore, and liquor deliveryman.

It was in a Greenwich Village liquor store that Sills met the artist Jeanne Reynal. The two married, and Reynal introduced Sills to her circle of friends and colleagues, who included the artists Elaine and Willem de Kooning, David Hare, Mark Rothko, and critic Harold Rosenberg. An avid collector as well as artist, Reynal acquired works by Max Ernst, the de Koonings, Marcel duChamp, and a number of others. As Sills remarked,  “With paintings and artists all around me, it didn’t take very long before I got stirred up to doing my own work. . . . I wanted to go my own way from the very beginning.”

 Sills' first solo exhibition was held at Betty Parsons Gallery in May 1955. He experimented with color and form his entire career, moving from the action painting of Abstract Expressionism to vibrant Color Field painting with energetic palettes and juxtapositions.

Reluctant to be categorized as a "Black artist," Sills commented, “If  somebody told me that I had to paint this way or that I had to do that . . . I wouldn’t want it. . . . You like it or you don’t like it, but I am doing what I want.” 

Sills worked and exhibited for almost 30 years. His final solo exhibition was in 1980. His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all New York; along with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Greenville County Museum of Art.