Thomas Sills was born and raised in Castalia, North Carolina. Before he got involved with painting, he worked in a greenhouse in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the color around him made a strong impression on him. Once in New York, he worked on the docks, as a janitor, and as a deliveryman.
Sills spent most of his creative life in New York City, deeply rooted in the artistic trends as well as cultural issues from the early 1950s to 1970s. He knew Willem de Kooning who visited his studio and told him not to throw anything away before anyone had seen it.
Others in the NY circle gave him advice. At the time of his first solo show, Barnett Newman sent him a letter of congratulations. His friendships with Newman and Mark Rothko placed him at the intellectual center of the Abstract Expressionist movement, but like de Kooning, Arshile Gorky and Franz Kline, Sills believed that it was not necessary to explain his art; he painted what he felt and it came from within.
Sills began his work as a fine artist when he was in his mid-thirties, about the time he married the mosaicist Jeanne Reynal. Essentially self-taught and inspired by Reynal's collection of abstract art, he began working with the materials he found in her mosaic studio, but soon branched out to oil on wood as well as canvas.
Through his exploratory approach to materials, Sills was able to release phantasmical abstract paintings. Intrigued by the light quality of mosaics, a similar luminosity emerged in Sill's bright oil compositions. His provocative handling of color and innovative use of media attracted the attention of the New York avant-garde.
Sills's regular presence in the art world of the 1950s through the early 1970s as an African-American painter situated him as an integral element of the main stream and African-American art. Thomas Sills perceived his art to be beyond the political. He found in Art a form of expression for the dynamism that escapes any formal constraints. Sills' work was highly intuitive and he too sought inspiration from primitive art—in the 1950s he made frequent trips to Mexico to study the sculptures, frescos and architecture of Chiapas and the Yucatan.
At the peak of his career in the 1960s and 1970s, his work was widely shown in museums. He had four solo shows at Betty Parsons Gallery, was regularly featured in art journals and is in museum collections. Today, there is a renaissance of the popularity of his works. He is being exhibited in many shows, most recently African American Abstract Masters at Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York and Abstraction Plus Abstraction at Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba, and Encore, Five Abstract Expressionists at Sidney Mishkin Gallery of Baruch College, The City University of New York in 2006.
His work has been acquired by over 30 museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Newark Museum.
Death and legacy
Thomas Sills died on September 26, 2000, in New York City at the age of 86.
Selected solo exhibitions
- Corcoran Fine Arts, Cleveland, OH, Thomas Sills Retrospective Exhibition, 2005
- Art Association of Newport, Newport, RI (solo) 1972
- Bodley Gallery, New York, NY, 1964 (solo), 1967 (solo), 1969 (solo), 1972 (solo), 1974 (solo)
- Paul Kantor Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 1962 (solo)
- Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, NY, 1955 (solo), 1957 (solo), 1959 (solo), 1961 (solo)
Selected group exhibitions
- Opalka Gallery - The Sage Colleges, Albany, NY, African American Abstract Masters, 2010
- Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York, NY, African American Abstract Masters, 2010
- Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba, New York, NY, Abstraction Plus Abstraction, 2010
- Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York, NY, Potpourri, 2009
- Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York, NY, Art Couple: Work of the 1950s: Mosaics by Jeanne Reynal and paintings by Thomas Sills, 2008
- Diggs Gallery, Winston-Salem State University, Ascension: Works by African American Artists of North Carolina, 2004
- Kenkeleba House, New York, NY, The Search for Freedom: African American Abstract Painting, 1945–1975, 1991
- Van Vechten Gallery, Fisk University, Directions in Afro-American Abstract Art, Nashville, TN, 1982.
- Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, Directions in Afro-American Art, 1974
- State Armory, Wilmington, DE 1971
- Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1970
- Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Boston, MA, Afro-American Artists, 1970.
- Museum of Modern Art, NY 1969
- Museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center, Philadelphia, PA, Afro-American Artists, 1800-1969, 1969.
- Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI, Contemporary Black Artists, 1969
- Sidney Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, The City University of New York, New York, NY, Encore: Five Abstract Expressionists, 2006
- Student Art Center Gallery Brooklyn College, City University of New York, New York, NY, Afro-American Artists since 1950, 1969.
- Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, 1969
- Ruder and Finn Fine Arts, NYC, 1969
- Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN, 30 Contemporary Black Artists, 1968.
- Wilson College, Chambersberg, PA 1968
- Creighton University, Omaha, NE, 1967
- Dord Fitz Gallery, Amarilllo, TX
- Farleigh-Dickinson University, NJ, 1964
- University of Colorado, Boulder, CO
- New School for Social Research, New York, NY, Jeanne Reynal and Thomas Sills, 1963
- Wolfson Studio, Salt Point, NY, Painting and Sculpture, 1962.
- Whitney Museum, New York, NY, 1959–60
- New School for Social Research, New York, NY, 1956
- Camino Gallery, Artists Group, NY 1956
- Stable Gallery, Artists Annual, New York, NY, 1955
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
- Los Angeles County Museum, CA
- Museum of Modern Art, NY
- L.S. Sims, "Thomas A. Sills: A Eulogy" in Thomas Albert Sills (1914-2000): A Retrospective of the Work. Cleveland, OH: Corcoran Fine Arts Limited, 2000.
- L. Campbell,"The Flowering of Thomas Sills" in Art News, March 1972.
- M.A. Rose, African American Abstract Artists, New York: Anita Shapolsky Gallery, 2010.
- S. Kraskin, Encore: Five Abstract Expressionists: Amaranth Ehrenhalt, Leonard Nelson, Jeanne Reynal, Thomas Sills, and Ary Stillman, New York: Sidney Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, 2006.
- Allen, S. A. (1972), "Introduction."
- Archives of American Art Journal, 11 ( nos. 1-4, 1971): 33
- Archives of American Art (1977), Checklist, 100 items plus one restricted item.
- Art Digest, Newsletter 4 (May 1, 1969): 6
- Art Gallery, 13 (April 1970): 16A, 28: 35; 40-41.
- Art Gallery, 14 (March 1971): 69-70, Pertinent and Impertinent: Mosaicist. On Jeanne Reynal, wife of Sills; mentions him, pp. 69 – 70.
- Art Gallery, 15 (March 1972): 32-36. "Eye on New York." Mentions Sills solo at Bodley Gallery, p. 33; illus.
- Art Gallery, 15 March 1972). "Guide."
- Art News, 17 articles 1955-74
- Art News, 69, March 1970.
- Brooklyn College (1969), Afro-American Artists Since 1950: April 15-May 18, 1969, New York, NY: Brooklyn College. (Exhibition Catalog)
- Campbell, L. "The Flowering of Thomas Sills" in Art News, March 1972
- Campbell, L. and Sills, T. (1964), Sills, Chicago: William and Noma Copley Foundation.
- Cederholm, T. (1973), Afro-American Artists, A Bio-bibliographical Survey, Boston: Trustees of the Boston Library.
- Craig, R. J. (1969), Afro-American Artists, 1800-1969: December 5–29, 1969, Philadelphia, PA: School District and Museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center. (Exhibition Catalog)
- Dover, Cedric. American Negro Art, 1960, p. 48 & 183, pl. 91
- Fine, E. H. (1973), The Afro-American artist: A search for identity, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Fine, E. H. (1981), The African American artist : A search for identity, New York: Hacker Art Books.
- Gaither, E. B. (1970), Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston: May 19-June 23, 1970, Boston, MA: Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. (Exhibition Catalog)
- Holmes, O. N. (1993?, 1973), Black artists in America : part three: Romare Bearden, Selma Burke, Elton C. Fax, Palmer Hayden, Richard Mayhew, Thomas Sills, and Charles White, Alexandria, Va. : Oakley N. Holmes, [1990?, 1973] Edition: VHS video.
- Igoe, L. M. (1981), 250 Years of Afro-American Art – An Annotated Bibliography. New York, NY
- Jeffries, R. (1974), Directions in Afro-American Art: September 18-October 27, 1974, Ithaca, NY: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. (Exhibition Catalog)
- Jones, K. (1989), Abstract Expressionism: The Missing Link, New York: Studio Museum in Harlem.
- K., I. C. (1957), "The Surprise of Painter Tom Sills," The Village Voice, p. 17
- Kenkeleba House (1991)The Search for Freedom: African American Abstract Painting, 1945 - 1975, New York: Kenkeleba House.
- Kraskin, S. (2006), Encore : Five Abstract Expressionists : Amaranth Ehrenhalt, Leonard Nelson, Jeanne Reynal, Thomas Sills, and Ary Stillman, New York: Sidney Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College.
- Mandle, R. (1986), 30 Contemporary Black Artists: October 17-November 24, 1968, Minneapolis, MN: Minneapolis Institute of Arts. (Exhibition Catalog)
- Montgomery, E. "Thomas Sills – An Interesting Artistic Life" in Thomas Albert Sills (1914-2000): A Retrospective of the Work, Cleveland, OH: Corcoran Fine Arts Limited, Inc. (gallery brochure)
- Paul Kantor Gallery (1962), Thomas Sills : May 14-June 2, 1962, Beverly Hills, CA: Paul Kantor Gallery.
- RISD Museum of Art (1969), Contemporary Black Artists: July 1–31, 1969, Providence, RI: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design.
- Pictures on Exhibits, 30 (5): "Exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery"
- Rose, M. A. (2010), African American Abstract Artists New York: Anita Shapolsky Gallery (Gallery Catalog)
- Sims, L. S. (2000), "Thomas A. Sills: A Eulogy" in Thomas Albert Sills (1914-2000): A Retrospective of the Work, Cleveland, OH: Corcoran Fine Arts Limited, Inc. (gallery brochure)
- Spradley, Mary Mace (1980), In Black and White: Afro-Americans in Print, Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo Public Library
- Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Oral History Collection. Interview with Thomas A. Sills, conducted 1968 July 13 by Henri Ghent
- New York Times, Thomas Sills, Obituaries, October 2, 2000.
- Waters, Jerry C. (1982), Directions in Afro-American Abstract Art: October 17-November 17, 1982, Nashville, TN: Van Vechten Gallery, Fisk University. (Exhibition Catalog)
- Who's Who in American Art, Vol. III, p. 3031 (1999).
- Jeanne Reynal and Thomas Sills, Art Couple: Work of the 1950s. http://www.anitashapolskygallery.com/past_exhibit_reynal_sills.html