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 Samuel (Sam) Middleton  (1927 - )

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Lived/Active: New York / Europe      Known for: abstract painting, collage, jazz music motif

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Ad Code: 3
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following entry was submitted May 2004 by Johanna Kalff-Middleton, wife of the artist.


By John A. Williams

One 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 this "sampling.'

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
Copenhagen, 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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