IN A HANDWRITTEN LETTER, Alma Thomas (1891-1978) thanked an aspiring young African American physician for sending his final payment to purchase one of her paintings. The California college student visited Thomas’s studio in 1969 and decided to buy “Spring Flowers in Washington D.C.” A poetic composition of concentric patterns and rhythmic strokes of exuberant color, the painting replicates the aerial view of a circular garden. The price was a few hundred dollars and he paid in installments.
“Many thanks for the check. I got a young fellow to box up your painting with the extra $5. I am quite sure he did a good job of crating the painting and the expressman said that it would not be handled much, only one change would be made in St. Louis and that their trucks ride piggy back on the freight trains to California. San Diego is so far and cost quite a bit to ship things,” Thomas wrote on Oct. 24, 1969.
The purchaser was an undergraduate at the University of San Diego (UCSD) when he agreed to buy the painting and by the time he made the final payment, he was still pursuing his bachelor’s degree in biology. He graduated in 1971 and went on to medical school at the University of Florida. He settled in the Los Angeles area where he specialized in internal medicine and was an expert on sickle cell anemia issues.
A married father of two, the physician died in 2012. In the wake of his passing, “Spring Flowers in Washington D.C.” has been consigned by his children for sale at Los Angeles Modern Auctions. The Thomas painting is featured in the Modern Art & Design Auction on March 5. The estimate is $125,000-$175,000.
The listing says the work comes from a private collection in Pasadena, Calif. The family wishes to remain anonymous, but through the auction house, conveyed the purchaser met Thomas during an academic trip to the East Coast. Their understanding is he took an art history course at UCSD in the summer of 1969 to fulfill a requirement. His professor was organizing an exhibition at the La Jolla Art Museum and the students were intimately involved. To help prepare for the 1970 show, the purchaser visited artist studios, including Thomas’s home studio in Washington.
It has been nearly 50 years since he took possession of “Spring Flowers in Washington D.C.” For half a century, it appears, the painting was never exhibited publicly.
“The children were not aware that it was ever loaned and there are no exhibition labels or the sorts of things that are usually attached to the back. So we don’t believe that it was ever was exhibited, unless [Thomas] exhibited it the year it was made, perhaps. But we have no indication that it was ever exhibited,” Peter Loughrey, the founder of LA Modern Auctions told me.
“The children were not aware that it was ever loaned and there are no exhibition labels or the sorts of things that are usually attached to the back. So we don’t believe that it was ever was exhibited.”
— Peter Loughrey, LA Modern Auctions
Given this is the maiden outing of “Spring Flowers in Washington D.C.,” I wanted to learn more regarding the backstory and how the transaction between the artist and the student came about. LA Modern provided a copy of the Thomas letter to Culture Type, with the addressee’s name redacted. The correspondence is included in the lot along with the painting. The 1969 letter provides some clues about the student’s visit and also gives a sense of Thomas’s interests and the projects she was involved in at the time.
“I think the Carnation Milk Company is going to prepare a book on Negro painters. I am sending two color prints to them,” she wrote. “The calendar for 1970 is off the press now. I have a color photograph of my painting in it. I will send you one. I will have also two paintings at the Ringling Museum Gallery of Art, Sarasota, Florida and many other other places, so I have to keep painting.” Thomas added: “I am now upon the moon and Mars (smile?) I hope the paintings will be exciting.”
The back of “Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C.” includes identification information handwritten by Thomas, including the artist’s home/studio address in Washington. | Photo courtesy LA Modern Auctions
BORN IN COLUMBUS, GA., Thomas was a trailblazer early on. In 1924, she became the first person to earn a fine arts degree from Howard University. She taught for 35 years at Shaw Junior High, a Washington, D.C., public school, and during that time, earned a master’s degree in art education from Columbia University in New York, pursued an MFA in painting at American University in Washington, and studied in Europe on a summer tour sponsored by the Tyler School of Fine Art at Temple University.
Over the years, her work periodically appeared in exhibitions and she was active in the local arts community, organizing clubs to expose her students to the arts, and serving as vice president of the Barnett Aden Gallery, a black-owned and operated gallery, often cited as the first in the country. When Thomas retired from teaching in 1960, she was finally able to devote herself to painting full time at age 68. That fall, her first solo exhibition at a Dupont Circle gallery featured her watercolors. Later exhibitions included shows at Howard University (1966) and Fisk University (1971).
At a time when the careers of most artists are winding down, Thomas was on the rise. Recognized for her expressive abstract paintings, her exuberant use of color and the technical acumen with which she executed patterns, she had dedicated herself to her practice a short dozen years when she was first celebrated by major institutions.
In 1972, three years after she painted “Spring Flowers in Washington D.C.,” Thomas was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The landmark show was followed later that year by a retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where Mayor Walter Washington declared Sept. 9 Alma W. Thomas Day. At 80, her career was at its peak.
At a time when the careers of most artists are winding down, Thomas was on the rise. …In 1972, three years after she painted “Spring Flowers in Washington D.C.,” Thomas was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Major posthumous solo exhibitions were organized by the Smithsonian in 1981 (“A Life in Art: Alma Thomas: 1891-1978”) and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, which mounted “Alma Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings” in 1998. The traveling exhibition was presented at four additional venues including the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington and Columbus Museum in Georgia, the artist’s hometown museum where her sister, J. Maurice Thomas, donated her works.
Last year, the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Spring, N.Y., and the Studio Museum in Harlem collaborated on “Alma Thomas,” the first comprehensive look at her practice in nearly two decades. Curated by Ian Berry and Lauren Haynes, the exhibition explored four themes in her work—the Move to Abstraction, and her Earth, Space and Mosaic paintings—and showcased a few dozen smaller watercolors and studies.
One of the featured paintings, “End of Autumn” (1968), is a circular abstract that appears on the cover of the exhibition catalog. The volume documents the exhibition and goes beyond the selection presented at the two New York venues. The curators sought to include as many available and known images of Thomas’s work as possible, works in both public and private collections.
While “Alma Thomas” was on view at the Tang Museum, I spoke to Berry about the forthcoming catalog and the works that would be represented. He said: “People have come up to us since the show has been up to us to say, ‘Hey, guess what? I have an Alma Thomas. Here’s my painting.’ Some of those are going in the catalog. There are also museums that are buying paintings now because of more interest in Alma. The Hood Museum at Dartmouth, for example, just bought a painting and we’ll be including that as an illustration in our catalog. Others are doing the same. MoMA, for example, just purchased some work last year that’ll be in our catalog also. There will be many, many more works illustrated in the catalog than are in the show. The catalog is much bigger, much more comprehensive.”
“People have come up to us since the show has been up to us to say, ‘Hey, guess what? I have an Alma Thomas. Here’s my painting.’ Some of those are going in the catalog. …There will be many, many more works illustrated in the catalog than are in the show. The catalog is much bigger, much more comprehensive.” Ian Berry, Director, Tang Teaching Museum
ALMA THOMAS, “Springtime in Washington,” 1971 (acrylic on canvas). Sold at Christie’s in 2008. According to the catalog “Alma Thomas” (2016), page 80-91, this painting is now in a private collection.
“SPRING FLOWERS IN WASHINGTON D.C.” does not appear in the catalog. In the letter Thomas included when she shipped the painting, in addition to discussing the delivery, she mentions a forthcoming exhibition. “I would like to lend you a few of my paintings for the art show but you live too far,” she wrote. Then she sends greetings to Edward Spriggs and Dwight Hackley.
The family referenced the purchaser was helping to plan an exhibition at the La Jolla Museum of Art. “Dimensions of Black” was presented at the La Jolla institution in 1970. It was curated by Jehanne Teilhet (1939-2002), who also edited the exhibition catalog. The show is listed in exhibition histories cited in subsequent catalogs including “Alma Thomas” (2016) and “Alma Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings” (1998). The artist and the organizers must have determined that her participation was important enough to overcome any issues with cross-country shipping.
(Now called the Museum of Contemporary Art, the La Jolla museum is currently presenting an exhibition titled “Dimensions of Black,” in collaboration with the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art through April 30, 2017. Interestingly, the online description of the show makes no mention to the earlier exhibition.)
I thought Spriggs and Hackley may have been associated with the university in some capacity. Spriggs I discovered was also a UCSD student at the time, an economics major. Today, he is a city councilmember for the City of Imperial Beach, just south of San Diego. Reached by email, he said he was friend’s with the purchaser and provided his name, which I was able to confirm by cross checking the limited information provided by the auction house with an obituary published in the Los Angeles Times. He shared his knowledge of the exhibition planned by Teilhet, their professor. Spriggs accompanied the purchaser, along with Hackley, on the visit with Thomas.
Spriggs said they enrolled in an African art course taught by Teilhet. The class was an elective. “We were all interested because we were participants in the broader Pan African cultural movement at that time. The civil rights and Black power movements were all active and so were we as students on our campus,” Spriggs said.
He provided details about their trip to the East Coast. “Amazingly for us, our African Art teacher invited the three of us to assist her identify art for an African Art show at UCSD that she was helping to curate. As I recall, the Black Student Council, of which I had been Chair the previous year, had successfully urged the campus to underwrite the program,” he said. “The project involved us traveling to Washington DC and New York to visit museums and private collections, meet with owners and curators and secure art pieces for the UCSD exhibit.”
The students were in Washington for four days, Spriggs said, spending most of the time with the curator of the National Museum of African Art. “We also visited Alma’s residence and those of other artists whose names I cannot recall,” he said.
“Our visit with Alma was, I recall, very warm and the house was full of her unique style of art. We were all fascinated. I only vaguely recall [my friend’s] interest in purchasing one of her pieces. In retrospect it is a bit surprising since we were students and did not have a lot of money for such things, at least I didn’t. So, purchasing never really occurred to me.”
“Our visit with Alma was, I recall, very warm and the house was full of her unique style of art. We were all fascinated.” — Edward Spriggs
The group went on to travel to New York, visiting the Schomburg Center. Spriggs said the purchaser graduated the year after he did in 1971 and then attended medical school.
SPRIGGS’ RECOLLECTION and the artist’s correspondence help to document the backstory for “Spring Flowers in Washington D.C.” Thomas’s handwriting in the letter is consistent with the her penmanship on the back of the painting and in documents held by the Archives of American Art. A multi-page, typewritten biographical statement includes handwritten edits throughout. In these instances the unique way Thomas forms her a’s and t’s, in particular, mirrors their appearance in the letter.
Thomas’s archives include an artist statement about her technique and inspirations that informs the painting up for auction. Titled “Comments of Alma W. Thomas, Renowned Washington Color Artist,” the statement is published in the “Alma Thomas” (2016) catalog and dated 1972. It reads in part:
“The irregular strokes give an interesting free pattern to the canvas, creating white intervals that punctuate the color stripes. There is a rhythmic movement obtained, too. I do not use masking tape. Sometimes a few pencil marks are employed to help me from becoming too involved in the stripes. The large circular canvases, however, are freely designed.
“My earth paintings are inspired by the display of azaleas at the Arboretum, the cherry blossoms, circular flower beds, the nurseries as seen from planes that are airborne…”
“My earth paintings are inspired by the display of azaleas at the Arboretum, the cherry blossoms, circular flower beds, the nurseries as seen from planes that are airborne…” — Alma Thomas
THE CIRCULAR FLOWER BEDS Thomas mentions inspired a number of her Earth paintings in the late 1960s and early 70s, including “End of Autumn” on the cover of the “Alma Thomas” (2016) catalog. (The aerial views also influenced her Space canvases.)
Concentric versions of her circular abstracts are owned by a private collection in Santa Monica (circa 1968), the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College (1969), and Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville., Ark. (1969). Each of these paintings is represented in the 2016 exhibition catalog.
“Springtime in Washington” (1971), a painting with a title similar to the one for sale at LA Modern Auctions, also appears in the catalog and is owned by an anonymous private collection. It sold at Christie’s New York in 2008 for $157,000 (including fees). Another example of Thomas’s concentric paintings, “Spring—Delightful Flowerbed” covered the May 1970 edition of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine.
Most notably, “Resurrection” (1968), an concentric abstract distinguished by its bright yellow grounding, was acquired by the White House in 2015. The painting by Thomas is the first by an African American woman to enter the White House permanent collection.
Similar to “Spring Flowers in Washington D.C.,” “Pink Dogwoods and Azaleas” is distinguished by its pink grounding. The 1971 concentric painting is in the Joyner/Giuffrida collection and will be on view in September when “Solidary and Solitary: The Pamela J. Joyner and Alfred J. Giuffrida Collection,” an exhibition of the holdings debuts at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans.
The pink hues in both paintings are reminiscent of the Cherry blossoms Thomas mentions in her statement. Cherry blossoms bloom every spring in Washington in what has become an annual tradition celebrated by locals, tourists and flowers lovers alike. For Thomas, a color enthusiast, they were particularly inspiring.
In her letter to the purchaser, Thomas informed him “Spring Flowers in Washington D.C.” was shipped the day before her writing, and noted the demand for her work and her commitment to her practice. She said: “I hope you will love the painting. So many of my friends want to buy it. I am painting more and more.” CT
IMAGE: Top right, Alma Thomas working in her studio, circa 1968. | Photo by Ida Jervis, Alma Thomas Papers, Archives of American Art.
Accompanying the exhibition organized by the Tang Teaching Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem, “Alma Thomas” features more than 125 vibrant, colorful paintings and works on paper, many published for the first time, a preface by Thelma Golden, scholarly essays, and responses to Thomas’s work by four contemporary artists. To further explore the life and practice of Alma Thomas, consider “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings,” published to coincide with a traveling exhibition organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (1998-2000). An earlier catalog, “A Life in Art: Alma W. Thomas, 1891-1978,” accompanied a Smithsonian exhibition (1981–1982).