Thornton Dial - IMA Video for Hard Truths


PIONEERING ALABAMA ARTIST Thornton Dial Sr., died on Monday, Jan. 25 at his home in McCalla, Ala. Dial created densely structured wall reliefs and mixed-media works exploring a range of subjects from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and race and social justice issues, to more mundane matters of everyday rural life. He was 87.

According to the Associated Press, Maria May, speaking on behalf of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, said, “Dial’s family passed along the information that the artist died Monday.”

Drawing on his own experiences and also referencing broader global issues, his diverse practice spanned assemblage works composed of found objects such as metal, stuffed animals, discarded clothing, rope and electrical wire, and dramatically textured paintings, as well as muted neo-expressionist works on paper executed in pastels, charcoal and watercolor. His works are steeped in expressive abandon, moderated by studied sense of color and rigorous attention to composition and balance.

Dial has been highly regarded since the 1990s when his first solo museum exhibition debuted at the New Museum in New York in 1993. In the years since, his work has been presented in exhibitions throughout the country and has entered the collections of major museums including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, American Folk Art Museum, Birmingham Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, High Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Whitney Museum of American Art, and Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In October 2015, Mariann Boesky Gallery in New York announced it was representing Dial and the artist had his first exhibition at the gallery’s Upper East Side location at the end of the year. “Thornton Dial: Works on Paper,” a survey of works from 1990-2008, closed on Dec. 19.

In a statement about Dial’s death, the gallery said, “Across his decades-long career, Mr. Dial elevated the meaning of self-taught artist, harnessing his tremendous ability to create work filled with emotion and that reflected the human experience.”

Marianne Boesky added that Dial had “a modesty that could bely the incredible power and depths of his creativity and insight.”


Thornton Dial - The End of November The Birds That Didn't Learn How to Fly - SGD.4
THORNTON DIAL SR., “The End of November: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How to Fly,” 2007 quilt, wire, fabric, and enamel on canvas on wood). | Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Thornton Dial. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014. Accession Number: 2014.548.5


ARGUABLY THE MOST RECOGNIZED self-taught African American artist from the South, Dial was born to sharecroppers in rural Emelle, Ala., in 1928. He worked for about 30 years 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. He constructed metal sculptures for decades before devoting himself to art making full time in 1987.

That same year, fellow artist Lonnie Holley introduced Atlanta collector William S. Arnett to Dial. The two struck up a friendship and Arnett took on the role of Dial’s patron, paying him a monthly stipend to create art. Dial, who had never learned to read or write, had also never visited a museum or leafed through an art book and was completely unfamiliar with the art world. Given this, Arnett, who is white, tried to guide the artist and the collaboration raised questions.

In its tribute to the late artist, ARTnews describes the situation: “Though Dial was constantly making things, he said that he did not know that what he was doing was art, and regularly reused parts of old pieces to make new ones. …In the coming years, Arnett would introduce him to making works on paper, suggest titles, and offer interpretations of his art, leading some to suggest that he was overstepping his role as Dial’s agent. The collector also helped cultivate scholarship and commercial interest in his work. Dial always said he was happy with their working relationship.”

Over the years, Arnett has “discovered” a number of self-taught African American artists from the South whose work he collected, promoted, and sought scholarly and curatorial recognition for. Born in the early- to mid-20th century with no formal training, their creative spirits compelled them to make eclectic and found-object works steeped in religious, historic and cultural meaning and quilts with family and regional heritage literally sewn through the fabric. Dial’s relationship with Arnett was longstanding and the artist was the most prominent and commercially successful among the group.


Top of the Line (Steel) - 1993.47_1a
THORNTON DIAL SR., “Top of the Line (Steel),” 1992 (mixed media: enamel, unbraided canvas roping, and metal on plywood). | Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift from the collection of Ron and June Shelp, 1993.47


IN 2011, “HARD TRUTHS: The Art of Thornton Dial,” the most comprehensive survey of Thornton Dial’s art ever mounted was organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The show traveled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; New Orleans Museum of Art; and Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C. “Depicting the tragedies and triumphs of humanity, he moves the discourse of contemporary art-making into new territory and offers an unflinching vision of the world that invites us to examine even our hardest truths,” the High Museum said.

Much of collection, documentation and promotion of Dial’s work has been carried out through the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which was founded by Arnett and is dedicated to researching, preserving and exhibiting the work of self-taught African American artists of the American South. Several volumes devoted to Dial’s work have been published and he has also appeared in books featuring the work of several Southern artists, including the recent tome “History Refused to Die: The Enduring Legacy of African American Art in Alabama,” which coincides with the exhibition on view at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center through April 30, 2016.


Thornton Dial - History Refused to Die - SGD.2014.3 recto
THORNTON DIAL SR., “History Refused to Die,” 2004 (okra stalks and roots, clothing, collaged drawings, tin, wire, steel, Masonite, steel chain, enamel, and spray paint). | Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Thornton Dial. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014. Accession Number: 2014.548.1


DIAL’S PASSING COMES at what appears to be a tipping point in mainstream appreciation of the artist’s self-taught brand of creation, whether considered “outsider,” “folk” or so-called “vernacular” art, or something more attuned to his individual motivations, inspirations and aesthetic.

Outsider art was recognized at the 56th Venice Biennale last year. Occurring for nearly 25 years, the Outsider Art Fair in New York was a few days ago (Jan. 21-24), and Christie’s held a complementary auction, “Liberation Through Expression: Outsider and Vernacular Art” on Jan. 22. When the inaugural sale of outsider art concluded, the big news was that “Boxer,” by William Edmondson (1874-1951) sold for $785,000 (including fees). Christie’s announced the sale of the small circa 1936 limestone sculpture by Edmondson, who in 1937 was the first African American artist to have a solo show at MoMA, was a record for outsider art.

The development follows a groundbreaking addition to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection in November 2014, when the largest museum in the United States accepted a gift of 57 works by self-taught African American artists from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s William S. Arnett Collection. The donation featured 30 artists and included 10 works by Dial, the first works by the artist to enter the museum’s collection.

“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 museum press release.

The Met plans an exhibition and catalog devoted to the Arnett collection, originally scheduled for fall 2016. Marianne Boesky Gallery says several exhibitions of Dial’s work are in development. CT


TOP IMAGE: Screen grab from Indianapolis Museum of Art video on “Hard Truths” exhibition.


“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. Dial’s work is featured in the recently published “History Refused to Die: The Enduring Legacy of African American Art in Alabama,” which coincides with the exhibition on view at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center through April 30, 2016. 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 catalog published by the museum and distributed by Yale University Press.


READ MORE about Thornton Dial’s family and background at Souls Grown Deep


LISTEN Studio 360: Thornton Dial is Not an Outsider Artist (March 4, 2011).


Thorntn Dial - Victory in Iraq _ SGD.2014.2
THORNTON DIAL SR., “Victory in Iraq,” 2004 (Mannequin head, barbed wire, steel, clothing, tin, electrical wire, wheels, stuffed animals, toy cars and figurines, plastic spoons, woods, basket, oil, enamel, spray paint and Splash Zone compound on canvas on wood). | Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Thornton Dial. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014. Accession Number: 2014.548.6


THORNTON DIAL SR., “The Lady and the Long Neck Bird,” 1991 (graphite and watercolor on paper). | Photography by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery


THORNTON DIAL SR., “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


Dial Installation view 2015_Bill_Orcutt0
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


Thornton Dial - Life Go On - 1993.63_1a
THORNTON DIAL SR., “Life Go On,” 1990 (oil on canvas). | Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of Ron and June Shelp. 1993.63


Thornton Dial - Out of the Darkness, the Lord Gave Us Light - SGD.2014.1
THORNTON DIAL SR., “Out of the Darkness, the Lord Gave Us Light,” 2003 (carpet, cloth, Splash Zone compound, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood). | Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Thornton Dial. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014. Accession Number: 2014.548.2


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