A dozen years ago, when President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama chose a group of modern and contemporary works from the national collections to install in the White House, soon after the inauguration, two brilliantly colored abstractions by the African-American painter Alma Woodsey Thomas attracted special attention in the press. The New York Times described their author as one of the selection’s “little-known figures,” which must have surprised Thomas’s admirers, especially the many artists for whom she was an important mentor and role model in Washington, D.C., where she lived and worked. (Born in Georgia in 1891, she died in Washington, D.C., in 1978). The article’s identifying Thomas as “the African-American Abstract Expressionist” must have been equally surprising, given that her strongest, most achieved pictures are pulsing expanses of intense color, like those of the Washington Color Field painters whose work she knew and with whom she sometimes exhibited. Perhaps the Times’s writer hadn’t been paying close enough attention. Thomas may not have been familiar to the general public, but during her lifetime her work was shown with some regularity and more than once in some depth. In the 1970s, she was represented by the prestigious Martha Jackson Gallery in New York and had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art—the first solo show the museum ever accorded an African-American woman—plus an even larger one-person exhibition at the Corcoran Museum of Art. In the years following these significant shows, major American museums acquired her work. Their interest was, admittedly, a bit belated—Thomas was eighty at the time of the Whitney retrospective—but the artist was also a late starter. She taught art in Washington public schools for almost four decades, and, like Hans Hofmann, who was able to devote himself entirely to the studio only after closing his school, she became a full-time painter after her retirement, in 1960, at the age of sixty-nine—almost a decade younger than Hofmann, who was seventy-eight when he finally stopped teaching.
Thomas was a well-informed, well-educated, and sophisticated artist, despite having spent her childhood and teenage years in the rural South, in the Jim Crow era, before moving with her family from Columbus, Georgia, to Washington, D.C., in 1907. She recalled, about the time of the Whitney retrospective, that when she was a young woman, it would have been inconceivable for a black person to visit a museum, but her family actively pursued education, participating in what Thomas called “cultural clubs” and forming an impressive library of history and literature. During her years of teaching, there were also periods when she seriously studied art herself. She was the first person to earn a degree in fine arts from Howard University, followed a little later by a master’s in art education from Columbia University’s Teachers College. While teaching, Thomas painted, exhibited, helped to found a black-owned gallery, explored the possibilities of sculpture and marionettes, and through it all was part of a group of dedicated artists. She took part in an extensive art tour of western Europe with Temple University students and traveled often to New York to see art. She has been described as “haunting museums.” Suspicions of responses to the art of the past and recent past in Thomas’s paintings are almost certainly accurate—her oddball Watusi (Hard Edge) (1963, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.), for example, was a deliberate response to Henri Matisse’s L’Escargot (1953), seen by her in an exhibition of his gouaches coupées. While her early work attests to her training (and ability) as a perceptual realist, her mature abstractions, with their full-throttle hues, their blocky “mosaics” of broad strokes, and, in some, all-over nets of jazzy calligraphy, reveal that she was not only well aware of her younger peers’ exploration of the expressive potency of color, but that she also shared many of their concerns and aspirations.
After Thomas’s death, interest in her work began to intensify and has only escalated since, as a good deal of scholarship has been devoted to her. The gaps between notable exhibitions have shortened. In 1981, the National Museum of American Art (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) in Washington, D.C., mounted “Alma Thomas: A Life in Art,” but it wasn’t until 1998 that the Fort Wayne Museum of Art organized a serious touring retrospective. Since 2001, however, Thomas’s reputation has grown exponentially. Her work has been seen in several significant exhibitions, at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York and at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, among other institutions. In 2014, her canvas Resurrection (1966) was acquired for the White House permanent collection—another first for a black woman. In 2016, the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College and The Studio Museum in Harlem jointly organized a wide-ranging, well-selected survey of Thomas’s canvases and works on paper from the 1950s through the 1970s. In 2019, when the Museum of Modern Art opened its latest Diller Scofidio + Refro addition, Thomas’s Fiery Sunset (1973), a modest-sized square of saturated brick red overlaid by a frayed a web of blue-black floating strokes, acquired in 2015, was part of the initial installation. Cruelly, the painting was hung in the Matisse gallery, at right angles to The Red Studio (1911), presumably to illustrate an astonishingly simple-minded idea about all-over expanses of an intense color. It’s not surprising that, even though Fiery Sunset is a serious, ambitious, and admirable painting, it couldn’t compete with Matisse’s masterpiece. But fortunately, also in 2019, “Alma Thomas: Resurrection,” at the Mnuchin Gallery on New York’s Upper East Side, allowed a group of Thomas’s signature “mosaic” paintings to speak for themselves, without having to measure themselves against the work of a giant of modernism.
Now, “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful,” a full retrospective organized by The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia (which houses Thomas’s archive), and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, is on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., as part of the Phillips’s centennial celebrations. The exhibition is accompanied by a thick, abundantly illustrated volume with essays by a long list of art historians, historians, academics, artists, writers, conservators, curators, and the like. The dense installation includes, in addition to canvases and works on paper, such miscellany as reconstructions of Thomas’s clothes and marionettes made with her students, plus an informative film. According to the press release, “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful” is “a major exhibition of artworks and archival materials that chronicle her dynamic long life.” The show, we are told, “captures the artist’s trailblazing life of constant creativity.” Does it?
To some extent, the exhibition presents the trajectory of Thomas’s evolution, starting with early figurative works. I suppose that the full-spectrum palette, turned up to maximum volume, on display in a small, untitled still life (1922/24) of bottles and boxes can be read as early evidence of Thomas’s love of color, but it doesn’t suggest a future ability to use chroma structurally or expressively. There are, however, glimmers of what was to come, such as Joe Summerford’s Still Life Study (1952, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.), a testimony to Thomas’s fruitful studies with the painter in the title at American University. With its range of subtly varied, full-bore greens, sparked with off-whites and unexpected hits of mauve and red, the painting points to her later prowess at orchestrating contrasting hues. Another early standout, quite different, is the small, straightforward Grandfather’s House (1952, The Columbus Museum, Georgia) with its roughly brushed, casually indicated yard, vigorous trees, and sketchy figures, made memorable by firm structure and heightened color. Thomas’s strengths, her ambition for her art, and her affinities and individuality are also prefigured by a small selection of her early paintings combined with works from the same years by such Washington colleagues as her lifelong friend Jacob Kainen. Another grouping places some of her late abstractions beside canvases by such members of the Washington Color School as Gene Davis, Sam Gilliam, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland, with whom she exhibited in Washington galleries and, in 1971, at the Phillips. Thomas’s works in this section attest to her embrace, without compromising her individual approach, of the generous scale and bold geometry employed by the younger artists, as well as their enthusiasm for intense, unmodulated color. The two sets of comparisons are informative, but you have to hunt for them.
“Hunt,” I’m afraid, is the operative word. The installation claims to be thematic, which it occasionally is. Overall, however, it doesn’t seem to be coherently chronological and it is definitely not based on visual considerations. I fully understand that the size and layout of the Phillips’s galleries pose constraints and that the curator’s desire to include sometimes-enriching archival material imposes its own conditions, but I kept finding myself baffled, intellectually and aesthetically, by the combination of works on a given wall. From time to time, there are illuminating sequences, and, if we make the effort, we can piece together Thomas’s evolution. For example, we can discover that, in the mid-1950s, her paintings, while still figurative, became looser and more adventurous, in response to her teachers at American University, who urged her to work in a less conventional way. We can realize, if we concentrate, that, by 1960, she was making abstract paintings on canvas and on paper, pulling broad sweeps of color across the surface, contrasting clear reds and oranges with transparent blues and greens. While the planes of color float freely, they also often seem to possess a memory of a grid or, at least, an acknowledgment of the vertical and horizontal givens of such a support. In some watercolors, the patches are often vaguely rectangular, as if echoing Hofmann’s slabs, hovering and pulsing against the white of the paper. Others are more complicated and finicky, with multiple touches forming nesting arches and bands of color. The most fully realized watercolors and acrylics on paper, made about 1968, anticipate Thomas’s mature oils with vertical bands of varied widths and varied hues, made of ample, stuttering, stacked touches that fill the entire support. In the early 1970s, she continued to explore other possibilities in relaxed, generous watercolors constructed not with repeated brushmarks, but with large vertical blocks of intense hues—think Clyfford Still without the crankiness and simmering hostility. There are, as well, small acrylic works on paper that employ what became her signature repeated staccato brushstrokes, here sometimes oriented horizontally, unlike the vertical stacks in her canvases of the same period.
Her continued experimentation on paper notwithstanding, beginning in the late 1960s, Thomas seems to have concentrated on all-over paintings constructed with regular, rhythmic patches of color chained into vertical bands, concentric circles, or off-kilter “narratives,” such as the series of “Earth and Space Paintings,” made in the early 1970s and inspired by the space program. A catalogue essay notes, fashionably, that Thomas began to make her ambitious abstractions at a time when “environmentalism and environmental justice” were gaining attention. “While making no direct reference to either movement,” we are told, “her work nonetheless internalized—at a structural level—the tension between universal environmental values and community concerns.” It’s hard to reconcile this with Thomas’s frankness about having found triggers for paintings in the exploration of outer space or with her frequent citation of the contrasting rings of color in formal flower beds as the source of her own dotted rings (which are impossible not to associate, as well, with Noland’s circle paintings).
Whatever their explicit or covert sources, the geometric, rather rigid paintings built with regular pats of color won Thomas attention. But she soon allowed her brushloads of pigment more freedom, altering their sizes and, sometimes, their orientation and degree of crispness. In the early 1970s, she began to use color differently, no longer dividing it into distinct zones, but instead spreading accumulations of a single hue or two closely related colors against white or chromatically contrasting grounds. These all-over paintings have a lushness and sensuality that make the “mosaic” rings and stripes, with their tidy rows of high-contrast hues, seem stiff and a little predictable. The difference can be seen in a series of fluid, red all-over pictures, some prompted, it seems, by space probes sent to Mars, the red planet, others by rose gardens, in which elongated, subtly modulated vertical strokes hover in a shifting cloud over blue-greens, now radiant, now cooling to near-black. In the best of these all-over paintings, the vibrant color contrasts and variations in the density and rhythm of the patches and repeated strokes, combined with the nuances of the ground, create a sense of instability and movement across the surface, as if we were confronted by leaves floating on water or blowing against the sky. Thomas’s titles, as well as some of her statements, underscore the stimulus she found in gardens, flowers, and the natural world in general. A flickering patchwork of tender pink against spring yellow-green, for example, announces its source in the title: Ruth Kainen’s Amaryllis (1976, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts).
At the Phillips, one wall of a large gallery devoted to some of Thomas’s last paintings finally allows us to concentrate on her achievement, undistracted by unrelated works. In this group, painted in 1976, the previously regular pats of paint rebel against uniformity. They break discipline, their orderly component strokes becoming anarchic floods of crisp bars and fractured curves, with occasional triangles entering the conversation; some read as sheets of fragmented calligraphy. The marks drift, becoming denser in some parts of the canvas, fraying in others. The most dramatic example, installed in another gallery, is the enormous—roughly six by thirteen feet—Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music (1976, Smithsonian American Art Museum). A vigorous tour de force of brushy, delicately varied red patches and strokes apparently blown to the left side of the painting, Red Azaleas combines three separate canvases, each a slightly more manageable size for the octogenarian artist, who continued to produce large, energetic works such as these despite crippling arthritis—paintings that are, in fact, her strongest and most ravishing. Their powerful effect in exhibitions where they were emphasized—at The Studio Museum in Harlem and at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, for example—remains vivid in my memory. The herky-jerky installation at the Phillips made me long for a show focusing on Alma Thomas in the 1970s, one in which her mature achievement would be obvious, undiluted by considerations other than aesthetic ones.
The book that accompanies “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful” is comprehensive and probably definitive, covering the artist’s biography and the context—social, political, and cultural—in which she lived and worked, along with generous quotations from her peers and herself, technical analysis, and a dissection of her art that mainly reflects current academic concerns. The handsome volume is lavishly illustrated, but it is as hard to navigate and incoherent as the Phillips installation. Most incomprehensible is the absence of a chronology or exhibition history, important information usually deemed essential to any scholarly publication related to an exhibition. Thomas deserves better.
1 “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful” opened at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., on October 30, 2021, and remains on view through January 23, 2022. The exhibition will also be seen at the Frist Art Museum, Nashville (February 25–June 5, 2022) and The Columbus Museum, Georgia (July 1–September 25, 2022). It was previously on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia (July 9–October 3, 2021).
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 5, on page 64
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com