Thomas Sills (1914-2000) is, for many contemporary viewers, a discovery: Much of the work in “Variegations, Paintings From the 1950s-70s” at Eric Firestone was in storage before being mounted here. Sills was hardly unknown during his lifetime, though. He socialized with New York School painters like Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko and had several solo exhibitions at the historically significant Betty Parsons Gallery before receding from the art world around 1980.
Sills’s paintings here include many of the traditional mid-20th-century New York School concerns. Abstract canvases with colored interlocking forms like “Travel” (1958) and “Son Bright” (1975) have a vibrant, dynamic tension similar to works by Lee Krasner and Piet Mondrian, who played with the painterly grid, and with the fleshy, promiscuous pink favored by de Kooning. Sills’s surfaces are also notable. He used rags instead of brushes to finish his paintings, and this gives the pigment a particularly even look, beautifully integrated into the canvas surface.
So why was he forgotten? One reason was that Sills was a largely self-taught African American artist. Born to sharecroppers in North Carolina, he moved to Harlem as a child before becoming part of the New York art world. Another reason: There are some pretty weird, spectral canvases here, like “Easter Holliday” (1955) and “The Morning” (1954), which has a perky, pink bird at its center. Spiritualist and transcendentalist painting, which flourished outside New York, is being re-evaluated today (think Hilma af Klint and Agnes Pelton). Sills’s jazzy, cool and skillful abstractions offer another case of welcome rediscovery.