In 1963, Alma Thomas undertook to upset Henri Matisse. Two years earlier, in 1961, she attended an exhibition of Henri Matisse’s end-of-career gouaches at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There she saw The snail (1952-1953), in which cut-and-paste squares of colored paper are arranged in a spiral shape, abstractly alluding to a gastropod without ever showing it clearly.
Thomas set to work, effectively recreating the iconic Matisse gouache with a twist. His version, titled Watusi (Hard edge), also contains a jumble of rectangles, diamonds and squares. Take a good look, though, and you realize that Thomas rotated Matisse’s composition 90 degrees. The medium has changed, from gouache to acrylic on canvas, and no doubt, the subject has changed too. Judging by the title of Thomas, the work no longer refers to an animal. Now it may be reminiscent of a popular dance style in the 60s whose name comes from the Tutsi people in Africa.
There is often more than meets the eye in Thomas’ art, such as Watusi (Hard edge) suggests. She appears alongside Thomas’ best-known works, his bright and colorful abstractions, in a traveling investigation dedicated to the artist. The exhibit is now on display at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., Which co-hosted it with the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio. (Organized by Jonathan Frederick Walz and Seth Freman, there are also plans to visit the latter institution, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and the Frist Art Museum in Nashville over the next year.) proof that Thomas’ abstractions provide valuable insight into what it meant for her, as a black woman, to adopt a fashion largely dominated by white men. He also exhibits unpublished parts of his work, notably his puppets and his fashion creations.
Below is a glimpse into the life and art of Thomas.
Thomas’s goal had often been to achieve beauty.
Throughout her career, Thomas has made it clear that she always strives to create images that are pleasing to the eye. âThrough color, I have sought to focus on beauty and happiness, rather than on the inhumanity of man to man,â she once said. Her works from the 1960s and 1970s, produced after her retirement as a teacher, often feature dazzling paintings of blue, red, green and purple acrylic strokes. She called these features âAlma’s stripesâ. Typically, there are empty spaces between them that allow the canvas to peek. Sometimes these features are arranged in vertical lines which make them appear like falling leaves or hanging flowers; other times they are made up of concentric circles. To achieve such a remarkable style, she familiarized herself with the color theories of Bauhaus artist Johannes Itten.
These dazzling paintings often alluded to Thomas’ own garden, which was teeming with flowers. His 1968-1970 painting Alma’s garden features square swatches of deep blue and golden yellow that resemble tesserae in a mosaic. (Amid a wave of cession in the Covid era, it was controversially sold by the Greenville County Museum of Art earlier this year for $ 2.8 million, generating a new auction record for Thomas.) To some, such a pleasing style seemed set back during the time the painting was made, a time when cases of anti-black violence were making headlines and sparking protests across the country. As she created her light paintings in her own Washington, DC home, not in a dedicated studio, but in her kitchen, there were practically protests on her doorstep. She had attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and painted a picture of it, but for the most part her work did little to explicitly describe the tensions of the time and the struggle for civil rights.
Thomas was aware of this paradox, and she even made a comparison between her and Matisse, who continued to paint serene nude images as World War II raged. “You’re like ‘What the hell are you doing, man?’ But that was me, âThomas once said. âIt was 1966, 1967, and I was painting – I didn’t even know what I was doing yet, I was just painting – and black nationalists were like ‘what does that do for racing?’ “
Thomas, for his part, did not like the label of âblack artistâ, saying simply: âI am a painter. I’m an American. “As curator Tiffany E. Barber puts it in the ongoing Thomas Inquiry Catalog,” She has strived to make her work meaningful beyond racial and gender constraints. in doing so, she challenged the singularity of the race.
Art has always been a part of Thomas’ life.
Many have often assumed that Thomas became an artist mainly in the later stages of her career, after retiring as a high school art teacher in 1960 after a 35-year tenure. Although she produced her most famous works in the years after graduating from Shaw Junior High School, until her death in 1978, Thomas still worked to become a full-time artist. As Seth Freman, one of the curators of the inquiry, writes in the catalog: “With every brushstroke on the canvas, Thomas rooted his art in the physical order of things, and she held the everyday material together. and artistic until the very end. “
Alma Woodsey Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891. Her family was the rare black family living in the upper middle class of Rose Hill. At age 15, amid the lingering threat of racism, Thomas and her family moved to Washington, DC, where she was able to take art classes for the first time. She likened these courses to a sanctuary, saying they were “right where I belonged.” She then attended Howard University, where she was convinced by artist James V. Herring, the professor who founded the institution’s art department, to change her major from home economics to art. She was the first woman to earn an art degree from Howard. Later, in the 1950s, she took graduate art courses at American University.
Howard continued to occupy a central role in Thomas’ life until the end. In 1966, the school hosted a Thomas retrospective, deepening its admiration for the vibrant community of the legendary university. And when she passed away, her memorial service was held in Howard. âHoward University has always and always remained at the center of its universe,â writes curator Rebecca VanDiver.
There has been a recent push to recognize Thomas’ contributions to the history of art.
“At 77, she arrived at the Whitney,” read the New York Times title for a 1972 profile of Thomas. The occasion was joyous: Thomas had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, the first black woman to do so. (Not everyone was happy, however – the Whitney has been accused by activist groups like the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition that she symbolized a few black performers selected to mask a lack of behind-the-scenes progress.) “Who would have dreamed that someone like me would arrive at the Whitney in New York?” Thomas said.
Thomas is often seen as a rediscovery, though it’s hard to say she ever strayed completely from it. She appeared in the late artist Mary Beth Edelson’s collage Some living women artists (1972), an image of the Last Supper in which female artists replace Jesus and his apostles, and it appeared in David C. Driskell’s landmark investigation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art “Two Centuries of Black American Art” . She has been considered a heroine by generations of artists.
Yet there is no doubt that Thomas’ work has had more visibility nationally now than ever before. In 2015, the Obamas hung a painting by Thomas, Resurrection (1966) in the White House dining room. (Acquired that year, this is the first artwork by an African-American woman to enter the White House collection.) In 2016, Skidmore College and the Studio Museum in Harlem hosted a acclaimed Thomas survey. In 2019, when the Museum of Modern Art revamped its collection, a painting by Thomas was nestled among some of Matisse’s most famous works.
Perhaps Thomas’s largest work is a 13-foot-long abstraction.
Although Thomas’ works are still striking, even on a modest scale, the artist felt like dreaming bigger. Often considered a member of the Washington Color School, Thomas aspired to work like his colleague Sam Gilliam, whose stained canvases dominate the viewer and often take on sculptural qualities. In his last years, his health prevented him from doing so. ” I would like to do [my] bigger canvases, like Sam Gilliam’s, âshe once said,â but my arthritis is so bad I can’t climb my ladder. “
That wasn’t going to stop him from trying, however. In 1976, she produced her most ambitious work, a 13-foot-long painting titled Red azaleas singing and dancing rock and roll music. (It is now owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which has the largest collections of Thomas’s paintings of any institution in the world.) Made with materials purchased for her by Gilliam, an artist several generations her junior, this painting is composed of three canvases, each bordered by orange-red shapes. The colorful shapes are arranged in jagged and arched patterns, which makes them appear to be moving before our eyes.
When he made his debut in 1976 at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, critics were devastated. Thomas herself was too. “Do you see this painting? Â»She said once of Red azaleas. âWatch him move. It’s energy and I put it there. . . . I transform the energy with my old limbs.