Retrospective

‘Bold Colors, Odd Shapes, Squiggly Lines’: The Changing Reputation of Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas, Apollo 12 "Splash Down," 1970, acrylic and graphite on canvas. COURTESY MICHAEL ROSENFELD GALLERY LLC, NEW YORK

Alma Thomas, Apollo 12 “Splash Down”, 1970, acrylic and graphite on canvas.

COURTESY MICHAEL ROSENFELD GALLERY LLC, NEW YORK

Yesterday the Studio Museum in Harlem opened a large Alma Thomas retrospective, the artist’s first solo New York museum show in more than 40 years. The last one was in 1972, when the under-appreciated abstract painter had an exhibition at the Whitney Museum, making her the first black artist to receive an exhibition at that institution. The show received some positive notices (one is reprinted below), and Thomas’s colorful, minimal abstractions lingered with critics and historians for a few years. But after Thomas died in 1978, at the age of 86, her legacy faded. In recent years, though, she has received new attention, in no small part because the Obamas decided to hang one of her pieces in White House. Below are excerpts from the ARTnews archives that bring to light the painter’s changing critical reputation.

“Alma W. Thomas at Whitney Museum”
By Phyllis Derfner
Summer 1972

Alma W. Thomas [Whitney Museum] presents a series of vibrant primitivist abstractions. Inspired by such events as the flight of Apollo 12, she creates a forceful mosaic effect with her placement of wide brushstrokes in highly saturated colors. Circles within circles, horizontal and vertical streaks and stripes pulsate with an air of celebration.

“The 20th-Century Artists Most Admired by Other Artists”
By Grace Glueck
November 1977

ALMA W. THOMAS

Cézanne’s unfinished painting of a landscape at the Phillips Collection gave me the idea of using color to structure a painting. Painting all over the canvas rather than just drawing, he gave an architectural structure to color.

Alma Thomas, Untitled, ca. 1960, oil on canvas. COURTESY MICHAEL ROSENFELD GALLERY LLC, NEW YORK

Alma Thomas, Untitled, ca. 1960, oil on canvas.

COURTESY MICHAEL ROSENFELD GALLERY LLC, NEW YORK


“Critics Nix Obama’s Pix Mix”
By Robin Cembalest
November 2009

This just in: “bold colors, odd shapes, squiggly lines have arrived” in the White House. So reported the Associated Press in early October, when the First Lady’s office released a list of 45 artworks borrowed from national museums for mostly private areas of the White House.

It was, the AP claimed, nothing less than a “quiet cultural revolution.” The choices, including modern and abstract classics by such artists as Josef Albers and Mark Rothko, along with works by edgier names like Jasper Johns and Ed Ruscha, made news around the world—and launched the latest skirmish in the culture wars at home. Political writers suddenly became art critics, and art writers became critics of the president, all of them scouring the selections for clues about the personal tastes of the Obamas and the political tone of the administration. The debates and close readings continue to percolate—about the role of race and gender, the appropriateness of appropriation, and what the meaning of “maybe” is, among other issues.

[…]

Alma Thomas, Breeze Rustling Through the Flowers, 1968, acrylic on canvas. ARTHUR EVANS/THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION, WASHINGTON, D.C., GIFT OF FRANZ BADER, 1976

Alma Thomas, Breeze Rustling Through the Flowers, 1968, acrylic on canvas.

ARTHUR EVANS/THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION, WASHINGTON, D.C., GIFT OF FRANZ BADER, 1976

The most unlikely villain here is Alma Thomas (1891–1978), who spent her career teaching children, only starting to paint later in life, and became the first black artist to show at the Whitney Museum. To Holland Cotter, she is an ideal symbol for the Obama White House: “forward-looking without being radical; post-racial but also race-conscious.” To right-wing bloggers, however, she is nothing more than a plagiarist and a fraud. Their evidence is her 1963 composition Watusi (Hard Edge), which she appropriated, as we in the art world might say, by flipping around a late Matisse and changing the colors. According to critics of the president, he was too clueless to notice the deception, turning a blind eye because the artist was black.

And then, by late October, there had been another quiet cultural move in the White House. Watusi (Hard Edge), which had been the only painting listed for the East Wing—and reportedly destined for Michelle Obama’s office—was no longer on the list. The Hirshhorn confirmed that it had been sent back, but no one involved with the White House loans would say why. In the end, perhaps, the story behind this painting may also presage the cultural politics of the Obama administration.

“Here’s a Photo of an Alma Thomas Painting in the White House”
By Andrew Russeth
April 15, 2015

[I]t just feels like the right time to share this photo, which has Alma Thomas’s Resurrection (1966), a stunner of a painting, presiding over a Passover seder in the White House’s family dining room. (This photo was shot during Passover, and shared by the official White House photographer, Pete Souza. Thank you to Greg Allen for bringing it to our attention.)

Michelle Obama unveiled the painting, which was acquired by the George B. Hartzog, Jr. White House Acquisition Trust, back in February at the unveiling of the renovation of the family dining room. There are also two paintings from the 1960s by Josef Albers, a rug from 1950 by Anni Albers, and a 1978 Robert Rauschenberg hanging there. Pretty impressive lineup.

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