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THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART received a donation of 57 works by 30 African American artists from the South last year. The gift from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation included works by Thornton Dial, Lonnie Hollie, Nellie Mae Rowe and 20 quilts by women artists from Gee’s Bend, Ala.

Giving the largest museum in the United States a notable collection of works by Dial and its first quilts from Gee’s Bend, it was a landmark acquisition recognizing the significance of the artists in the American canon.

“From Thornton Dial’s magisterial constructions to the emblematic compositions by the Gee’s Bend quilters from the 1930s onwards, this extraordinary group of works contributes immeasurably to the Museum’s representation of works by contemporary American artists and augments on a historic scale its holdings of contemporary art,” said Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum, in a press release announcing the donation.

As early as three decades ago, William S. Arnett, founder of Souls Grown Deep, sought out, befriended and served as a patron to the artists who have no formal training and brought their work to the attention of the wider art world. Over the years, he amassed a vast collection of their works and become an unrivaled expert and champion in their unique category of creative production. Arnett, who is white, has been both heralded for “discovering” the impressive group of African American artists born in the early 20th century and also accused of opportunism.

Arnett noted the significance of the works entering The Met’s collection.

“This collection documents a little-known tradition that began in the Deep South, likely during the earliest days of slavery. It evolved and appeared in the open when the Civil Rights Movement empowered these African American artists to let their previously hidden visual arts come out of the woods and cemeteries and be seen in the front yards and along the roads,” he said in the museum release.

“Art lovers and cultural historians everywhere owe a great debt to the Metropolitan, where this historic work will now be seen alongside the current and past art of the world’s great civilizations.”

“This collection documents a little-known tradition that began in the Deep South, likely during the earliest days of slavery. It evolved and appeared in the open when the Civil Rights Movement empowered these African American artists…” – William S. Arnett via Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Installation view of “Thornton Dial: Works on Paper” at Marianne Boesky Gallery (Nov. 5-Dec. 19, 2015). | Photo by Bill Orcutt via Marianne Boesky Gallery

 

ARGUABLY THE MOST RECOGNIZED self-taught African American artist from the South, Thornton Dial was born to sharecroppers in rural Alabama. He worked for three decades as a metalworker for the Pullman Standard Company, the railroad manufacturer, and then took up various skilled trades—house painting, highway construction, commercial fishing, and pipe fitting—before devoting himself to art full time in 1987.

Arguably the most recognized self-taught African American artist from the South…Thornton Dial devoted himself to art full time in 1987.

Dial lives and works in Bessemer, Ala. Drawing on his own experiences and also referencing broader global issues, his practice is diverse spanning assemblage works composed of found objects, dramatically textured paintings and muted neo-expressionist works on paper.

The Met donation included 10 works by Dial—six large-scale mixed-media compositions and four drawings. A selection of related works on paper are currently on view at Marianne Boesky Gallery. The survey of drawings from 1990 to 2008 is installed on all three floors of the gallery’s townhouse space. The exhibition is Dial’s first since he joined the gallery. The Upper East Side dealer announced its representation of Dial on Oct. 20. Previously he was represented by Arnett.

Through her publicist, I asked Boesky what prompted the relationship with Dial, who has been highly regarded since the mid-1990s, when his first solo museum exhibition debuted at the New Museum in New York. Her response echoed what she told the New York Times.

“We very much look forward to bringing Thornton Dial’s powerful paintings, drawings, and assemblages into the broader conversation of contemporary art. The boundries between outsider and insider are shifting: I watch academically trained artists work hard to shake loose from all the scholarship and technique to channel their emotions and experiences in more immediate material and formal ways,” Boesky said. “William J. O’Brien and Jessica Jackson Hutchins are great examples from our program of an artist who does this. Thornton Dial’s work is as intentional and visually resolute, on par with the great artists of his generation.”

“Thornton Dial: Works on Paper” is on view at Marianne Boesky Gallery through Dec. 19. CT

 

TOP IMAGE: THORNTON DIAL, “The Lady and the Long Neck Bird,” 1991 (graphite and watercolor on paper). Photography by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

 

BOOKSHELF
“Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger” is the exhibition catalog for Dial’s first solo museum show which opened at the New Museum in New York in 1993. The image-rich volume “Thornton Dial in the 21st Century” coincided with a 2005 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, that included a series of large-scale works Dial created in tribute to the Gee’s Bend artists, and “Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper” explores his early drawings. Published a few years ago, “Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial” accompanied the most extensive survey of the artist’s work ever. Finally, in fall 2016, The Met is mounting an exhibition devoted to the works donated by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation which will be accompanied by a catalogue published by the museum and distributed by Yale University Press.

 

READ “The Met Embraces Neglected Southern Artists” in The New Yorker

WATCH “Thornton Dial Has Something to Say” from Alabama Public Television

 

Correction (Feb. 29, 2016): This post has been updated to correct the citation that the Souls Grown Deep Foundation gift included the “first” works by Thornton Dial to enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. The museum received an earlier donation of three works by Dial, from Auldlyn Higgins Williams and E.T. Williams, Jr., in memory of Gayle Perkins Atkins, Trustee.

 

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THORNTON DIAL, “Looking to Fill the Plates,” 1997 | Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York © Thornton Dial. Photo by Jason Wyche

 

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Installation view of “Thornton Dial: Works on Paper” at Marianne Boesky Gallery (Nov. 5-Dec. 19, 2015). | Photo by Bill Orcutt via Marianne Boesky Gallery

 

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THORNTON DIAL, “Lines of the Tree of Life,” 1999 | Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York © Thornton Dial. Photo by Jason Wyche

 

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THORNTON DIAL, “Untitled,” n.d. (watercolor, charcoal and graphite on pastel). | Photo by Jason Wyche

 

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Installation view of “Thornton Dial: Works on Paper” at Marianne Boesky Gallery (Nov. 5-Dec. 19, 2015). | Photo by Bill Orcutt via Marianne Boesky Gallery

 

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THORNTON DIAL, “Learning to Fly,” 2006 (graphite and watercolor on paper). | Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York © Thornton Dial. Photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

 

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Installation view of “Thornton Dial: Works on Paper” at Marianne Boesky Gallery (Nov. 5-Dec. 19, 2015). | Photo by Bill Orcutt via Marianne Boesky Gallery

 

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THORNTON DIAL, “Holding the Peace,” 1996 (Graphite and watercolor on paper). | Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York © Thornton Dial. Photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio