Friday, February 10, 2017

Mothers of Invention, Part 4: Alma Thomas

Part 1: Carmen Herrera

Alma Thomas (1891-1978) at the Studio Museum in Harlem, July 14-October 30, 2016
This panorama looks toward the entrance to the galleries. Photos are mine unless indicted otherwise

Usually associated with the Washington Color School, Alma Thomas 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

These 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

Expansive 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

On a personal note I visited the Alma Thomas exhibition on its last weekend in late October with my long-time dear friend, the activist Gina Quattrochi. Gina was tireless in her fight for the rights of all--especially women, queers, people of color (and all of our glorious permutations), and particularly those with HIV/AIDS. She was the CEO of Bailey House in New York City for 25 years. As serious as she was politically, she was also immense fun to be with. We were friends for over four decades. Gina died not long after our afternoon together, after her own personal struggle with multiple myeloma. I dedicate this post to her memory.