Alma Thomas’ biography is one for the ages. She was born in Georgia in 1891, but moved to Washington, DC, in 1907, remaining there for much of the rest of her life. In 1924, she graduated from Howard University with that school’s very first fine art degree—she also earned a master’s degree from Columbia Teacher’s College and did graduate work in painting at American University.
There were several generations of Washington, DC, junior high school students, the youngest ones now approaching 70 years old, who had what I can only imagine was a formidable art education as Thomas’ pupils. The artist devoted herself seriously to her own work only after retiring from her art teaching in 1960, at the age of 69. In 1972, the year Thomas, then 80, was the first African-American woman ever to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, she reflected back over her experience of the 20th century and said this: “One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.”
Her work pulsates with color and life.
Though she died in 1978, her work, pulsating with color and life, has only become more and more beloved over the decades. Just last year, the Obamas acquired a jewel-like Thomas painting for the White House art collection (they’re all jewel-like!), also a first for an African-American woman. And now, a selection of her paintings from the late ‘50s through the rest of her career makes up the small, but glorious, show, “Alma Thomas,” on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem through Oct. 30.
Thomas’ work has a distinctive, recognizable style, but she coaxed a surprisingly varied collection of canvases out of it. Her paintings are often organized roughly geometrically—bands, rectangles, circles, targets—and composed of discrete patches of carefully-worked, vibrant color. The Studio Museum show—co-organized with the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College and co-curated by the Studio Museum’s Lauren Haynes and Ian Berry of the Tang Museum—examines Thomas’ work separated into four categories: Move to Abstraction, Earth, Mosaic and Space.
The Move to Abstraction section includes the earliest and most representational work in the show—also the only explicitly political work—in a pair of 1964 images, both called Sketch for March on Washington. Despite the specificity of the march she evokes, there is much in these images that anticipates elements of her mature style. Including these in the exhibition deepens the scope of Thomas’ work very effectively. In the Earth section, Thomas emerges as the ecstatic colorist for which she is justly famous and begins giving her paintings titles based on the flowers in her garden (see the image at the top of this page). The paintings shown in the Mosaic section have denser, more delicately composed surfaces and include showier shapes with harder edges integrated into patterns at more than one scale (see the image below). Introducing the Space section, a wall text notes that Thomas lived through both the Wright Brothers’ flight and the Apollo landing. She had a keen interest in the romance of the space program (a 1970 painting is called Apollo 12 “Splash Down”), the beauty of celestial bodies and, in general, the glamorous, abstracting effect of an aerial perspective.
Thomas’ paintings can seem simple and immediate at first; however, these are images that reward careful looking, and the seeming simplicity quickly evaporates. The compositions are rigorously organized, but not at all precious. The patches of color, far from being uniform, are irregular, often visibly re-painted and specific to the contexts of the individual paintings and even individual passages within paintings. Thomas’ paintings also demonstrates a highly sophisticated knowledge of the sweep of 20th-century art history—she expertly quotes all manner of painterly strategies from Henri Matisse (any of Thomas’ work side-by-side with a cornerstone Matisse like Luxe, Calme et Volupté is a revelation) and Vasily Kandinsky, among many others. The exhibition includes several watercolors and other works on paper that evoke Abstract Expressionists like Clyfford Still, as well as both the relatively obscure early work in addition to the iconic classical work of Barnett Newman.
Thomas is often associated with the color field painters of the so-called Washington Color School; Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, the most prominent, were Thomas’ contemporaries and, like her, were based in Washington. This is an instructive comparison because Thomas’ divergence from these colleagues gets at the charm and magnetism of her work. Louis’ and Noland’s œuvres are smart and elegant, but truly compelling largely only for rather technical art historical reasons related to an esoteric mid-century obsession with pictorial flatness. That has its place, certainly—and I don’t mean to imply anything negative about Louis or Noland—but delivers none of Thomas’ exuberance. All the color field painters were rigorous formalists, devoted to geometry and color. Whereas Louis and Noland worked with an icy control, often using colored washes rather than viscous paint to avoid even the texture of paint strokes, Thomas allows a playful humanity to appear through the rigor, pushing against it in creative and unexpected ways, but never breaking through or turning haphazard.
Toward the end of his New York Times review of the Thomas show at the Studio Museum, Ken Tucker notes how much better it would be if there were even more of Thomas’ paintings on view; the Studio Museum curator regrets that the institution just doesn’t have enough space for more. Tucker’s logical solution: “A full-scale New York retrospective of Ms. Thomas’s œuvre is long overdue. Someone with the space and resources should get on it.” I couldn’t agree more; why not the Whitney? Thomas and the Whitney have their shared history of firsts, and she could be the first African-American woman solo show in the new building, too. She could continue the artistic conversation started by last year’s major Frank Stella show. I seem to remember that the Whitney’s fifth floor is vast and open and flooded with light such that Alma Thomas’ gorgeous paintings would shine like the stars in space or the candy-colored flowers of earth.