Alma Thomas, “Untitled,” circa 1968. | MoMA

 

A NEW EXHIBITION at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is dedicated to works by women artists created between the end of World War II in 1945 and the onset of the Feminist Movement in the late 1960s. “Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction” features about 100 works by more than 50 artists. Just two of them are African American—Barbara Chase Riboud and Alma Thomas (1891-1978).

An untitled 1968 study by Thomas is featured in the exhibition. Dabs of paint in a spectrum of colors arranged in a succession of linear rhythms, the work was acquired by the museum in 2015. Composed of several sheets of paper held together with pressure-sensitive tape and staples, the study is a preparatory work demonstrating how Thomas thoughtfully considered the structure and composition of her canvases. A study for one of her Earth paintings, the image replicates an aerial view of densely planted rows in a colorful flower garden.

The beauty of the natural world inspired the practice of Thomas and motivated her transition from representation to abstraction. Two months before she died, Thomas was interviewed by Eleanor Munro. The writer and art critic visited her home/studio in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. During their conversation, Thomas explained she was preparing for a retrospective at Howard University Gallery and said, “I decided to try to paint something different from anything I’d ever done. Different from anything I’d ever seen.”

The beauty of the natural world inspired the practice of Thomas and motivated her transition from representation to abstraction.

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ALMA THOMAS, “Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses,” 1969 (acrylic on canvas). | National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem

 

Thomas said she sat in a red chair in her living room and looked out the window and saw the colors and patterns that were the genesis for her expressive approach to abstraction.

“Why, the tree! The holly tree! I looked at the tree in the window, and that became my inspiration. There are six patterns in there right now that I can see. And every morning since then, the wind has given me new colors through the window panes,” Thomas said.

“I got some watercolors and some crayons, and I began dabbling. And that’s how it all began. The works have changed in many ways, but they are still all little dabs of paint that spread out.”

“I looked at the tree in the window, and that became my inspiration. There are six patterns in there right now that I can see. And every morning since then, the wind has given me new colors through the window panes.”
— Alma Thomas

The interview was published in the Washington Post Magazine on April 15, 1979, more than a year after Thomas died.

 

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ALMA THOMAS, “Cherry Blossom Symphony,” 1973 (acrylic on canvas). | Collection of halley k harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, NY; Courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem

 

INDEED, SHE HAD A SIGNATURE aesthetic defined by strokes of paint delivered in precise dabs. From there she ventured in many directions. She was fascinated with space and pursued the passion in many of her works. Her Earth paintings, however, are among her most celebrated.

Abstracting her natural surroundings—from the plantings in her own yard to the vast displays at the nearby U.S. National Arboretum—Thomas painted flower beds and gardens, horticultural landscapes as if they were being viewed from an aerial perspective. The variations in her precise patterns indicated the flutter of leaves, flower petals rustled by the win, or beams of sunlight influencing streaks of color.

In a 1972 artist statement, Thomas wrote about her Earth paintings:

    “My Earth paintings are solely inspired from nature. The display of the designs formed by the leaves of a holly tree that covers the bay window in my home greets me each morning. These compositions are framed by the window panes with the aid of the wind as an active designer. The rays of the sunrise flickering through the leaves add joy to their display.

    “Man’s highest inspirations come from nature. A world without color would seem dead. Color is life. Light is the mother of color. Light reveals to us the spirit and the living soul of the world through colors.

    “…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, and by the foliage of tree in the fall.”

 


ALMA THOMAS, “Red Rose Cantata,” 1973 (acrylic on canvas). | Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976.6.1. Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Courtesy NGA

 

THIS YEAR, EARTH DAY is about environmental and climate literacy. With a practice intensely focused Earth, space, and nature, one wonders how the encroaching affects of climate change might influence Thomas’s vision.

In “Alma Thomas” the catalog that coincided with the 2016 exhibition at the Tang Teaching Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem, Nikki A. Greene of Wellesley College noted the artist’s emphasis on the positive.

“In her art, Thomas pointedly rejected painting about struggle and crisis. She believe instead that the beauty she generated offset the world’s horrors and inhumanities,” Greene wrote. “Her goal was to create brief respites from many of the difficulties suffered by those who lived in her segregated neighborhood; she attempted to teach her viewers to find the wonder of nature in their own front yards.”

“Thomas pointedly rejected painting about struggle and crisis. She believe instead that the beauty she generated offset the world’s horrors and inhumanities.” — Nikki A. Greene

Given this, environmental threats and the hazards of climate change might further encourage Thomas. Rather than change course, she may well have embraced her exuberant use of color and the technical acumen with which she executed patterns, producing more paintings with titles such as “Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses,” “Cherry Blossom Symphony,” and “Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: ALMA WOODSEY THOMAS (American, 1891–1978), “Untitled,” circa 1968 (synthetic polymer paint and pressure-sensitive tape on cut-and-stapled paper), 19 1/8 × 51 1/2 inches. | The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Donald B. Marron, 2015

 

BOOKSHELF
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).

 

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ALMA THOMAS, “Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers,” 1968 (acrylic on canvas). | The Phillips Collection, Washington DC, Gift of Franz Bader, 1976; Courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem

 

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This work was on view in “Alma Thomas: 13 Studies for Paintings” (2014) at Hemphill Fine Arts in Washington, D.C.: ALMA THOMAS, “Untitled (Study for Breeze Rustling through Fall Flowers),” c. 1968 (acrylic on paper). | Courtesy Hemphill Fine Arts