Mothers of Invention: Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem, July 14-October 30, 2016

Resurrection, Mnuchin Gallery, New York City, September 10-October 19, 2019

At The Studio Museum

Originally published February 10, 2017

Alma Thomas at the Studio Museum in Harlem: This panorama looks toward the entrance to the galleries

Photos are mine unless indicated otherwise

Usually associated with the Washington Color School, Alma Thomas (1891-1978) began her painting career behind three rather large eight balls: she was older than many of her contemporaries (she began to exhibit after she retired from teaching art at the age of 69), she was a woman, and she was black. In a wonderful show at the Studio Museum in Harlem this past fall, curated by Ian Berry, director of the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, and Lauren Haynes, associate curator of the Studio Museum, selections of Thomas's oeuvre were on display.

Thomas studied fine arts at Howard University, "becoming its first fine arts graduate in 1921," according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In this exhibition we see some of her small early landscape-influenced work. But the paintings for which she is best known are mid-size to large canvases, often more or less monochrome, with staccato daubs that create mosaic-like, non-repeating patterns. Heightened by the cell-like structure of her compositions, the effect is of a pulse rather than a rhythm--color, with variations in paint thickness, texture, and subtleties of hue.

Hydrangeas Spring Song, 1976, acrylic on canvas, is at left, but we begin our walk-through of the exhibition in the far gallery, where Thomas's works on paper were installed on the wall and in the vitrine

Photo: Studio Museum in Harlem

Early expressionist abstractions give way to Thomas's signature fields of organized color, realized with brushy flat strokes. From this wall we will turn 180 degrees . . .

. . . to look over a vitrine in that space to one of my favorite paintings in the show: a field of red daubs over an underlying layer of green, yellow and blue

A nearby wall text quotes Thomas in 1972: "One of the things we couldn't do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there." The works in this vitrine are on loan from the Columbus Museum of Art. Other institutions lending to this exhibit include the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Phillips Collection, National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The quote finishes, "My, times have changed. Just look at me now."

Approaching Storm at Sunset, 1973, acrylic on canvas

Looking into the second side gallery, with works on paper and paintings

The panoramas above and below give you a sense of the space and the work in the gallery

Let's step back and begin our tour around the large main gallery. At right: Scarlet Sage Dancing a Whirling Dervish, 1976, acrylic on canvas

This epansive panorama lets us turn clockwise around the gallery. In the left corner . . .

. . . we see a closer view of Scarlet Sage and, right, White Roses Sing and Sing, 1976, acrylic on canvas

Detail below

We continue clockwise with . . . 

Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1973, acrylic on canvas

Detail below

Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968, and Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969; both acrylic on canvas

Peter Schjeldahl, writing in The New Yorker, said: "The boldly experimental work of her last years suggests the alacrity of a young master, but it harvested the resources of a lifetime."

Photo: Studio Museum in Harlem 

End of Autumn, 1968, acrylic and graphite on canvas

Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers is visible at right as we step back in a small gallery on the other side of the partition wall

And Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses is visible at right as we step back behind another partition wall. We're actually at the front of the museum seeing early work, like . . .

. . . Yellow and Blue, 1959, oil on canvas

I love this painting. Though it predates most of the work in the exhibition by almost 20 years, we can see Thomas's color sensibility and the beginning of her signature daubs. And though Thomas didn't start showing until after she retired from teaching, it's clear she painted throughout her life 

The artist

Thomas's painting, right, was displayed in the family dining room of the Obama White House. She was the first black woman to be represented there

At the Mnuchin Gallery, New York City

Resurrection, September 10-October 19, 2019

The tony Upper East Side is home to a number of galleries in what were once splendid single-family dwellings. The Mnuchin* Gallery is one such venue. Dark blue walls were the perfect backdrop for Alma Thomas's richly chromatic paintings, installed with ample space between them and a sensitivity to sightlines. Larger-than-life photographs of the artist brought her presence into the galleries, and wall texts gave her a voice. 

The exhibition's title is apt, because although the artist's career began an upward trajectory when she retired from teaching, it is only since her death that Thomas and her work have seen new life.

(*Yes, the gallery's owner, Robert, is father to the odious former treasury secretary, but by all accounts the gallerist is a generous supporter of Democratic causes.)  

The view just in from the entry. We'll go upstairs in a moment, but first let me take you around the first floor

Opposite the chair, a single painting: Nature’s Red Impressions, 1968

All work acrylic on canvas unless otherwise noted

Can you read the Thomas quote? "Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and hap[piness, rather than on man's inhumanity to man."—1970

A view into the second space on this floor with End of Autumn, left, and the Matissean Watusi (Hard Edge), flanking New Galaxy in the distance

End of Autumn, 1968, acrylic and graphite on canvas

Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963

New Galaxy, 1970, acrylic on canvas

Detail below with signature

Looking around the second gallery with Approaching Storm at Sunset, 1973, and Burst of Fall, 1968

Approaching Storm at Sunset

This painting was also in the Studio Museum retrospective. I love being able to see an artist’s work recontextualized

Continuing around: Burst of Fall, A Red Display of Fall Leaves, 1972, Blue Abstraction. 1971, oil on canvas

A Red Display of Fall Leaves, 1972

We have ascended the stairs you see beyond the doorway and are standing in one of two large rooms on the second floor, the piano nobile. We'll move clockwise around the room

At left, Orange Glow, 1968; right, one of the photographs of the artist with her work. Above the doorway, this from the artist: "When I was in the South, that was segregated. When I came to Washington, that was segregated, too. But I always thought the reason was ignorance. I thought myself superior and kept going. Culture is sensitivity to beauty. And a cultured person is the highest stage of human being. If everybody were cultured we would have no wars or disturbance. There would be peace in the world." —1978

We begin our clockwise tour with Night Sky Mysteries, 1973, on the far wall

Panorama of salon-style hanging, bracketed by Night Sky Mysteries and Forsythia Among Spring Flowers

Below we look more closely at three of the works on the long wall

Christmas, 1976 

Below that: Untitled, 1971, gouache on paper

Sunset Duet, 1976

The titles make clear that Thomas surrounded herself with the beauty of nature. She maintained a flower garden and enjoyed the parks near her Washington, D.C. home

Forsythia Among Spring Flowers, 1972

Detail below

Moving from this gallery into the ample space at the top of the stairs . . .

. . . and then into the second gallery on this floor

Snoopy Sees a Daybreak on Earth, 1970

Springtime in Washington, 1971

Panorama looking into the central space with the salon hanging beyond. At right a photograph of Thomas with her paintings

Descending the stairs we have a last view of the first floor galleries

See the gallery's installation shots (much better then mine) here

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