How Alma Thomas Came to Her Seminal Style of Vibrant Abstract Painting


Ayanna Dozier

Installation view of “Everything is beautiful”, 2022, at the Frist Art Museum. Photo by John Schweikert. Courtesy of First Art Museum.

Alma Thomas’ paintings create portals to other worlds through color and form. And although the late artist, who died in 1978, is now considered a leading painter of Abstract Expressionism, her first major solo museum exhibition did not come until she was 80. This exhibition, held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972, came to fruition thanks to a recommendation by renowned artist and curator David Driskell. At the opening, Thomas wore a bright geometric dress that she designed herself, which matched her abstract paintings inspired by her love of nature and space exploration. The exhibition launched a meteoric rise in Thomas’ career that lasted until his death at the age of 86.

While Thomas enjoyed success late in life, his inclusion in the canon of art history and the rise of his market did not occur – like many black abstract painters – until the 21st century. . Over the past decade, Thomas’ work has been included in several restorative exhibitions that have cemented his place in modern and abstract art, such as the upcoming “Put it This Way: (Re)Visions of the Hirshhorn Collection” at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture. Garden this summer. Thomas is currently the subject of a four-city traveling retrospective titled “Everything Is Beautiful,” which ends June 5 at the Frist Art Museum, before reaching its final stop, the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia, Georgia. July ; the show was also shown at the Chrysler Museum of Art and the Phillips Collection.

Portrait of Alma Thomas with two students at the Howard University Art Gallery, 1928 or later. Courtesy of Alma W. Thomas Papers, The Columbus Museum, GA.

Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1891 and spent two-thirds of her life experiencing and dealing with the effects of racial segregation in the United States. Her family moved to Washington, DC in 1907, when she was 15, to continue her education. as black Americans in Columbus, there were few if any educational opportunities beyond college.

In 1921, at age 30, Thomas enrolled in Howard University’s home economics program to pursue costume design; although she initially sought to pursue a career in architecture, Thomas abandoned that goal due to the lack of educational programs for black women in the field. At Howard, his costumes caught the attention of James V. Herring, who founded the university’s art department in 1921 and invited Thomas to join. In 1924, Thomas became Howard’s first fine arts graduate. In 1934, she earned a master’s degree in education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Although she pursued a career in teaching, Thomas never ceased her practice of painting. His tireless approach to art shaped his pictorial practice, leading him to experiment with modern art styles like cubism and pure abstraction over a 35-year period.

Alma W. Thomas, Untitled, 1922/1924. © Alma Thomas. Courtesy of Kinsey’s African American Art and History Collection.

A masterful Untitled The 1924 still life displays the inspiration she gleaned from Paul Cézanne, particularly his use of color rather than line to create a sense of form. Untitled is a vibrant, full-bodied painting where color is used to immerse the audience in a scene of wine bottles, a dice and other cubic shapes. The heavy use of red and pink throughout the paint dominates the mood, suggesting a warm, if not sensual tone, which is enhanced by the empty wine bottles. The red die is exceptionally large, taking up as much space as the wine bottles next to it, evoking a hint of Alice in Wonderland. This dreamlike still life evokes Thomas’ interest in scenography and puppetry. His master’s thesis, after all, was about puppets.

Thomas started doing abstract paintings in earnest in 1960, after retiring at age 68. It was also at this time that she completed a decade of practice by taking classes in modernist painting at American University. In red abstraction (1960), she used broad bands of red on a green background and black gesture lines to minimize depth. Painting is a fluid atmosphere dominated by color and brushstrokes.

The painting March on Washington (1964) documents Thomas’ participation in the titular march alongside his friend, opera singer Lillian Evanti. In it, the outlines of the walkers’ bodies combine to become a swirling blur of color and movement. The result is the effect or feeling of the walk, rather than the specific representation of it.

Alma W. Thomas, Untitled, 1968. © Alma Thomas. Courtesy of The Steve and Lesley Testan Collection, curated by Emily Friedman Fine Art.

Thomas is best known for her distinctive mosaic-like paintings, characterized by a heavy arrangement of warm blocks of yellow, orange and red, bleeding into a smaller circular pattern of cool blues and purples. She began these works in 1966 with the painting Resurrectionmade for his first gallery exhibition at Howard University.

His interest in the emotive properties of color began after reading the work of Johannes Itten on color theory. As she pursued abstraction in the 1960s, Itten’s research into color and emotion led Thomas to use color as a force that can positively and negatively alter space and mood.

Thomas composed the mosaics for her Whitney exhibit with strips of wallpaper that she cut out and placed on a stretched canvas to form a grid, as in Untitled (1968). This technique allowed Thomas to carefully create the color of each work over time, instead of painting all of his colors at once. X-rays of some of the “Everything’s Beautiful” paintings reveal that Thomas is a masterful color corrector: the excessive build-up of color in some areas suggests that she added extra layers of darker colors for contrast and that she used white paint in some places to dilute the intensity.

Installation view of be set on fire1970, Natural red prints1968, Breeze rustling through the fall flowers1968, aA happy spring scene, 1968 in “Everything is beautiful”, 2022, at the Frist Art Museum. Photo by John Schweikert. Courtesy of First Art Museum.

In be set on fire (1970), Thomas used color and shape to represent the force and speed of a rocket. This imaginative subject conveys Thomas’ desire to escape or build another environment devoid of racial oppression; as Sun Ra said, “space is place”. In a 1979 Washington Post interview, Thomas shared her preference for being defined as an American artist rather than a black artist. She said this precisely because her experiences as a black woman were, for her, uniquely American in that it was the segregationist policies of the United States that shaped her life and practice.

Despite racial oppression, Thomas’ career gained an audience during his lifetime, and his fame continued to soar in the years that followed. The vast construction of the world that emerges through Thomas’ skillful use of color transforms the audience into space travellers. Even now, decades after his death, seeing these paintings sends us to the moon and beyond.

Ayanna Dozier

Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s editor.

Thumbnail: Portrait of Alma Thomas at the opening of the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition, 1972. Courtesy of Alma Thomas Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution and Alma W. Thomas, Blast Off, 1970.

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