Alma Thomas’ magnificent abstractions

WASHINGTON, DC – Alma Thomas was born in Georgia in 1891. At the age of 15, her relatively prosperous black family moved to Washington, DC, where she lived and worked most of the rest of her life. The first fine arts graduate from Howard University (1924), in 1934 she obtained a master’s degree in arts education from Columbia University. Thomas taught art in high school until 1960, was heavily involved in his local art scene, attended concerts at the Phillips Collection, and exhibited in local galleries. She loved gardening and was an active bishop. And in the 1970s, she participated in debates about the goals of black artists before her death in 1978. Well read and sociable, she enjoyed popular rock music, which provided titles to some of her works. And judging by the many quotes in the catalog for Alma W. Thomas: Everything is beautiful, currently at the Phillips Collection, she was a lucid writer. Thomas believed in a color blind universality. “Some of us might be black, but that’s not the important thing,” she once said, “The important thing is that we create, that we shape what we have. inside of us. ” Late in his life, thanks in part to his exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1972, Thomas’ work was acquired by a number of major American museums. And his painting “Mars Reflection” (1972) belongs to the CIA.

Thomas was a gifted figurative artist. The astonishing painting “Grandfather’s House” (1952) shows his mastery of color. “Still Life with Mandolin” (1955) is a splendid and perfectly balanced composition. And “They Laid Him in the Tomb” (1968), which focuses on the grim figure of Christ, is a compelling sacred work. Although not generally a political painter, she did an important sketch, “March on Washington” (1963), depicting the crowd at the Civil Rights March, which she attended.

Alma Thomas (American, 1891-1978), “Sketch for March on Washington” (c. 1963), acrylic on canvas board. The Columbus Museum, Gift of Miss John Maurice Thomas in memory of her parents, John H. and Amelia W. Cantey Thomas, and of her sister, Alma Woodsey Thomas

Then, after retiring from teaching, Thomas replaced his oils with acrylics and produced superb abstractions, the physically large works that established his current reputation. The exceptional “Fiery Sunset” (1973) is a powerful all-over composition. In “Red Roses Sonata” (1972), ripples of short vertical red marks stand out against a luminescent background. And his great “Watusi (Hard Edge)” (1963) is a masterful appropriation of one of Henri Matisse’s color cuts. “If a paralyzed old man can do this,” she said to a friend, then “I can do it” too. At the very end of her life, when her physical mobility was restricted, she produced the enormous “Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music” (1976), a triptych that is a masterpiece.

Many of the details provided in the smart exhibition catalog, which guided my story, are invaluable. I learned about the protests of black artists in New York museums in the 1970s and the pressure many of these artists felt to make figurative works, which did not have an influence on Thomas. The catalog includes an engaging discussion of her interest in theater and costume design. But not enough is said about the details of his schooling. What, I wonder, did she learn in her arts education? And what were his own classes like? There are informative notes on his working process, but less on how to theorize his art. And the catalog’s many commentators do not focus on the most interesting artistic question: why, after having produced very successful figurative works, did Thomas turn, in retirement, to abstraction? If his late works are often associated with those of Morris Louis and other DC color field painters, it is probably because in Washington these abstract artists were influential. In reality, however, Thomas’ abstractions are closer to those of Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell. But it is not clear from the catalog whether she was familiar with their paintings.

Installation image of Alma W. Thomas: Everything is beautiful at the Phillips Collection, with the following works by Alma W. Thomas: (left to right) “Watusi (Hard Edge)” (1963), “Wind Tossing Late Autumn Leaves” (1976), “Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass ”(1973),“ Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass ”(1973),“ Orangery ” (1973), “Babbling Brook Symphony and Whistling Poplar Trees” (1976), “Saint Cecilia at the Organ (Etude in Brown)” (1962) (photo by Lee Stalsworth)
Alma Thomas (American, 1891-1978), “Pensies in Washington” (1969), acrylic on canvas, 50 x 48 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Vincent Melzac)

If the goal of an art museum is to best defend a marginalized artist, the catalog and visual presentation of the Phillips Collection is unfortunately limited. A well-edited display of Thomas’s paintings could present her as one of the best artists of her generation. Here, however, the display of many minor works does a disservice to its reputation. We see a lot of sketches and a few paintings which obviously are not quite successful. The installation is not in chronological order, it is not easy to imagine its evolution. And with 19 authors, the catalog is unfortunately vague. A reprint of some of Thomas’ writings could have been more illuminating. My very tentative feeling is that Thomas’ multicolored abstract pointillist works like “Spring Flowers Near Jefferson Memorial (1970) are not as memorable as his all-over fields composed mostly of unique colors. Here, I think her love of flower gardens has played a false role on her, as these visual compositions don’t hold together well. And I had similar problems with some of the other late abstractions, which can appear formless because they contain too many colors – “Summer Reflections” (1970) is one example. His most compelling abstractions are the all-over compositions dominated by single-color markings.

How should a museum present an underrated black artist who deserves greater recognition? We certainly need information about her life and the artistic context in which she worked. Still, the inclusion of works by other black Washington artists, including Thomas’ friend Sam Gilliam, or some of his white peers, such as Kenneth Noland, was inconvenient. And it wasn’t necessary, because Thomas’s paintings, which are different from theirs, are strong enough to stand on their own. Large museums have an unfortunate tendency to sometimes flesh out the presentations of black artists, as if our institutions lacked self-confidence in their own know-how. The Kerry James Marshall exhibition at the Met Breuer five years ago also supported the presentation of his paintings, which hardly needed such a medium, with comparative materials and works he admired from other artists. . Thomas was a major artist who during her lifetime was unfairly denied the praise she deserved. She deserves a well-organized exhibition of her best work. But this show is a brave start.

Alma W. Thomas: Everything is beautiful continues at the Phillips Collection (1600 21st Street, NW, Washington, DC) through January 23. He is visiting the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tennessee (February 25-June 5, 2022) and the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia (July 1, September 25, 2022). The exhibition was curated by Seth Feman and Jonathan Frederick Walz.