Born in 1927, Sam Middleton was raised by a single mother in Harlem - a place he felt was going to condemn him to doom (“I was going to become a junkie or end up in jail”) if he didn’t find a way to escape it. The Merchant Marines took him abroad when he was 17.

Glimpses of joy came through music, which was everywhere in Harlem, including across the street from his home at the Savoy Ballroom, where he would sneak in when his mother sent him out to do errands. Jazz became a life-long love and influence. Middleton moved to Greenwich Village in the 1950s and began to spend time at the Cedar Tavern and in the clubs, becoming friends with Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, among others. 1950s jazz was becoming improvisational, and Middleton’s work would forever reflect the spontaneity and unrehearsed immediacy of that radical change.

It was Franz Kline who advised the artist to leave America to seek recognition, telling him there was ‘no room’ for him in the art world of his own country. Kline helped Middleton to secure a grant, which permitted the latter to live in Mexico for a stint. In 1962 he decided to permanently settle in The Netherlands. Abroad and specifically in Holland, Middleton found a ‘bit of civilization …at last on mother earth’ he says with vulnerable and reverential relief in a documentary that was made not too long before his death. In Holland, no one put up a sign on his lawn telling him to go home. He had been looking for peace and beauty and found it there.

Thus while he was included in Whitney Museum shows early on in his career (‘Young America 1960: Thirty American Painters under Thirty-Six’ and ’40 Under 40’ in 1962), the art historian Julie McGee observes that Middleton’s inclusion in the Whitney’s 2015 reopening (‘America is Hard to See’) was a ‘bittersweet homecoming’. It was the same year that the artist died.

A self-taught artist, Middleton learned draughting while studying to become a tailor in high school. Collage evolved as his signature style during his time in Mexico, when he began to incorporate advertisements for bullfights into his paintings. Traveling around Europe before settling in Holland, he carried a suitcase full of scraps: travel tickets, newspaper clippings, advertisements for concerts, “metaphors for movement and cultural exchange” Julie McGee writes.

These were symbols for the freedom he discovered in art and music and then in travel, and the life he found abroad. “Hopefully you can make something out of selecting and organizing - that is a collage to me,” Middleton said. The mark-making that integrates these bits of the world is musical, annotative, sometimes splashy, and expressive. He claimed to have been influenced by musicians more than other painters, though he was deeply inspired by Picasso’s radical ‘Still Life with Chair Caning,’ as well as by Duchamp, Man Ray, and Picabia.

Introduction by Romare Bearden for Sam Middleton's solo exhibition catalog at the Museum Fodor, Amsterdam in 1972:

The ancient Greek philosopher Plotinus wrote: the center of a circle is fixed, but if the circumference were too, it would be nothing but a huge circle.

How well this applies to the art of Sam Middleton. One is immediately aware of the linear arcs of color, in his works, that appear to liberate themselves from fixed points and swing out boldly, defying gravity, in their rush to explore the pulsating world that this artist has created.

Analogous again, it is the way Mr. Middleton sets up a cadenced relationship of tilted rectangles, which turn out from the centers of his paintings.

On these reciprocating forms we see carefully chosen words and phrases that not only amplify the linear elements but also give a feeling of an immediacy of time and place.

Mr. Middleton’s paintings are lyrical and inventive- a complex of precise, rhythmical improvisations around his main forms.

In this, the artist is involved, in a unique way, with methods employed by great musicians. It is interesting that Mr. Middleton, who came to Europe a decade ago and who has lived, for the most part, in a city whose people and locales were depicted so well by Rembrandt, still retains at the core of his art a way common to his origins.

One can see that Mr. Middleton has not used his paintings to express any obvious political doctrines or sentimental attachments, yet the energies he releases have within them a real sense of liberation. The form and content have been brought to an elegant resolution.

By these means then the artist has moved outward from a fixed center to become all-embracing, but this is the only way for the true artist…

Through the success he found abroad, Middleton was able to purchase a second home, a farmhouse on the North Sea, and in the 1970s, after the acquisition of his country home, sky and water became prominent in a series of works. Diagrammatic and angular drawing combined with sunny, spacious blue evokes Diebenkorn, who was an influence.

Middleton spoke of interrupting circular features in his work because he didn’t want to go back to Harlem. Building a show around this group of works inspired by the beauty of the Dutch landscape, we hope to reintroduce his work to New York in a way that isn’t bittersweet but ebullient, consummated, and hopeful.

Sam Middleton’s work is included in the following prominent collections, Mott-Warsh Collection, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Columbia Museum of Art, the St. Louis Museum of Art, the Studio Museum, the Howard University Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, and the Newark Museum, among others. He will be included in a 2025 exhibition at the Pompidou entitled ‘Paris Noir’.