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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Alma Thomas at Tang Teaching Museum

Installation view of Alma Thomas at the Tang Teaching Museum.
Photo by Arthur Evans
I wonder what Alma Thomas's public school art students thought when, in 1972, their teacher - retired and elderly - became the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

The idea of an artist being that important and, yet, having had to teach school all her life is far from unique, but this extreme case is certainly food for thought. Skidmore College's Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs has, in a sense, rescued this delightful painter from obscurity a second time with a sharp, spacious presentation of about two decades' worth of her work (on view through June 5) in a show simply titled Alma Thomas.

Alma Thomas - Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses
acrylic on canvas 1969
The exhibition is certainly a revelation for me - I was only a schoolkid myself when her big show happened at the Whitney and, though I am a fan of the Washington Color School that Thomas was associated with (including such notables as Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Gene Davis, and Sam Gilliam) I had never heard of her. Featuring a few choice examples of full-on abstract expressionism at the start (and they are very beautiful), the show quickly moves from Thomas's earlier efforts to the late phase, when her talent found its full strength in a signature style of patchy vertical or horizontal stripes.

Along the way, she tried social commentary blended with abstraction, but made a decision that perfectly sums up the nature of this exhibition, described here in a quote:
Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man's inhumanity to man.

Alma Thomas - Apollo 12 "Splash Down"
acrylic and graphite on canvas 1970
No wonder she faded into obscurity! For what seems like half a century, the art world writ large has grimaced at the idea that a serious painter would give any thought at all to either beauty or happiness. But maybe the tables are turning at last. If so, and if this show is some evidence of a shift in that attitude, then I am relieved and grateful.

Like many abstract artists, Thomas was not avoiding subject matter per se - in fact, she still used representation in some of her work, as in her "Space" series celebrating the Apollo missions - rather, she was transforming her direct experiences into their essences via color and brushwork.

Alma Thomas - Cherry Blossom Symphony
acrylic on canvas 1973
This was most true in certain paintings about flowers or flowering trees. A later section of the show features two such paintings, each about 4½ feet by 6 feet, that shimmer with the vibrant sensation of taking a tree-ful of blossoms square in the face (as in the painting shown at left). Another, slightly earlier piece celebrates four distinct types of garden flower, not by representing their forms, but by dissecting their colors and organizing them into marching ranks (example near top of post at left).

At first, these dabbed stripe paintings were fairly flat but, as time went on, Thomas mastered a layering technique that led to far greater depth and complexity, even as her palette narrowed. By the end, she was making monochrome images, often with a great deal of white, frequently mosaic-like rather than structured into rows, and the freedom did her good.

Alma Thomas - Deep Red Roses Chant
acrylic on canvas 1972
While the show is sparse, there is a denser section that groups 25 smaller works on paper into a lovely constellation of framed pieces hung above two glass-topped cases holding a group of matted or unmatted sketches. These are all on loan from the collection of The Columbia Museum in Columbia, Georgia, which was Thomas's home town, and to which her family donated the sketchbooks. It is a treat to peer into such personal studies, and the opportunity should not be missed by artists who love to sketch - it will inspire them.

Kudos to the co-curators of Alma Thomas: Ian Berry, director of the Tang, and Lauren Haynes of The Studio Museum in Harlem. Though Thomas died in 1978, here she has been brought vividly back to life at a time when we sorely need as much beauty and happiness as we can find.

Installation view of Alma Thomas at the Tang Teaching Museum.
Photo by Arthur Evans


harry wilks said...

I enjoy reading you posts.
Harry Wilks

John Rowen said...

Those were beautiful paintings. Thanks for sharing them with us, Dave!
John Rowen