Alma Thomas

at The Studio Museum in Harlem

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Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969, Alma Thomas
Acrylic on canvas, 60″x 50″
Photo: courtesy National Museum of Women in the Arts, gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

With over 50 pieces, this comprehensive retrospective of Alma Thomas’ (1891-1978) paintings and watercolors brings to life a unique body of work, somewhere between Color Field and Abstract Expressionism, much of it telescoped into the last two decades of her life when she could paint full-time after retiring at 69. Thomas had a career of firsts, no less remarkable than the art that she managed to produce along the way. She was the first fine arts graduate at Howard University, the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum, and the first African-American woman to contribute an artwork to the White House’s collection. Raised in the Jim Crow South, and active in Washington DC’s African-American art community, she very well could have made her art about social justice. Yet, Thomas made it clear in an interview in 1970 that her aim was to make the world a better place through her abstract paintings. As she put it in an interview in 1970, “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” That color, informed by the natural world, resoundingly manifests the joy she wanted to convey.

Vivid primaries dominate her paintings from 1960 through the mid-1970s, which consist of vertical bars of color broken up into mosaic-like patches of pigment. The intervening white between the colors gives them breathing room to acquire greater intensityÑa technique CŽzanne often deployed in his watercolors using the white of the page. In Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses (1969), bands of cobalt blue dominate the composition, which nevertheless gives an impression of air and light. The mosaic pattern also breaks up the predictability of the vertical bands. By the mid-1970s, she had greatly simplified her palette, and her marks begin to suggest pictographs, letters, and other kinds of symbols. The most intriguing painting in the show, Hydrangeas Spring Song (1976), involves an all-over composition of cobalt blue proto- symbolic marks on a white canvas. Just of right of center, she allows a vertical band of ground to open up. That one decision energizes the entire composition by imbuing the cascade of marks with a subtle pulse. Bad health and eyesight unfortunately curtailed her artistic production toward the end of her life. If only we could have seen where this new direction would have taken her.