|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following entry was submitted May 2004 by Johanna Kalff-Middleton, wife of the artist.|
SAM MIDDLETON: MISCHIEF AND MELANCHOLY
By John A. Williams
part of the mischief is that he has pulled it off after all -- the
business of being one's own person without being considered a ranting
rebel, a choleric contrarian, or an obnoxious outsider. The other
part of the mischief is what he calls the "small stealing" of things,
materials for his collages. They can come from anywhere,
anyplace, and he collects them all the time. Musicians might call
The root of the melancholy, which is not unmixed
with nostalgia, may lie in the cost of becoming the master collagist,
draftsman, and the painter we know today as Sam Middleton. As
well, those Harlem experiences that shaped him no longer do. The
physical Harlem is gone, too; the shops, dance halls, clubs, and many
of the barber shops and storefront churches have also vanished.
Famous avenues have been renamed Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, and
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Middleton, who has spent a good part of
his life painting his impressions of the sights and the sounds he's
associated with jazz music, is into his seventieth decade --and is now
equally concerned with portraying other kinds of music: classical,
spiritual, gospel. He is one of the Grand Old Men among American
painters, having had about 200 exhibitions -- an average of over two
per year -- but fewer than 50 have been held in the land of his
birth. His self-exile from the United States and Harlem began
over 50 years ago to avoid smashing his spirit into the restrictive,
irrational and soul-numbing barriers of American racism. The
tradition of escape was at least a century old, measured from the
European sojourn of Robert Scott Duncanson in the mid-1840s, to the
current crop of as-yet-unknown-African American artists boarding a
plane this evening to Europe.
Of course, Middleton could have
stayed home; he could have become a painter, perhaps even a very famous
one, but there were always those conditional elements that offered
nothing and promised little. Some of his white friends from his
Greenwich Village days urged him to hit the road to avoid the system
that allowed only one Black painter at a time to gain prominence.
He had already begun to create his own options by setting out to view
the world as it emerged from the destruction of World War 11 through 10
years of travel in the merchant marine. His trips carried him to
Asia, Europe, South America, and to ports in the United States he
otherwise would never have visited.
His first permanent move, from the States was to neighboring Mexico, which
earlier had welcomed the painter of the racial struggle, Charles White, and his wife,
the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett. In 1955 in the land of David Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco,
and Diego Rivera, Middleton's work in paint, gouache and collage, was
moving from social realism to expressionism. There in Mexico
City, where lived more Africans than Spanish during parts of the 17th
century, he created his first collages and held his first one-man
exhibit in 1957.
Two years later he was in Spain. He is
said to have been influenced by Juan Miró, but he denies this. "Miró he
says, "never influenced me to do anything. I like him, I like the
intricacies of Calder's mobiles too, but I wasn't influenced by them."
Middleton seems to have almost found his niche in Sweden, where he lived, and in
where he had a studio, rejoining old friends from New York and
elsewhere -- Harvey Cropper, Clifford Jackson, Walter Williams, Herbert
Gentry. Middleton had exhibitions in both Stockholm and Copenhagen in
1961, and the next year one in Amsterdam where he had moved by then, and in the United States and Germany.
in the late, 1970s and early 1980s his work was declared to be in a
Nieuwe Fase, which emphasized land, sea, and sky -- space -- and colors
that were softer.
Those earlier jazz music motifs were less
prominent and often altogether absent; people, things, places now
assumed critical importance. The Netherlands, in its various
aspects, repeatedly became his model. Then, late in the mid-1980s
and early 1990s, Middleton combined techniques, themes and subjects;
the music was back, this time including classical. A composers'
series is dedicated to Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin and Cole
Porter. A 1990 collage displays Jessye Norman.
During his nearly
40 years in the Netherlands, Middleton has achieved artistic maturity,
yet, like his model John Coltrane, he continues to probe and stretch,
and that is why he is one of the most prodigious painters working
today. But these labors mask an ageless melancholy that is made less
deep by a sprightly, effortlessly innovative 'Black Mischief" (the title
of a 1986 collage).
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