How Alma Thomas Arrived at Her Seminal Style of Vibrant Abstract Painting
Installation view of “Everything is Beautiful,” 2022, at Frist Art Museum. Photo by John Schweikert. Courtesy of Frist Art Museum.
Alma Thomas’s paintings create portals into other worlds through color and form. And though the late artist, who died in 1978, is now regarded as a seminal painter of Abstract Expressionism, her first major museum solo exhibition did not arrive until she was 80. That show, held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972, came to fruition thanks to a recommendation by the esteemed artist and curator David Driskell. At the opening, Thomas wore a vivid geometric dress she designed herself, which matched her abstract paintings that were inspired by her love of nature and space exploration. The exhibition launched a meteoric rise in Thomas’s career that lasted until her death at the age of 86.
While Thomas gained success late in life, her inclusion in the art historical canon, and the ascent of her market, did not come—like many Black abstract painters—until the 21st century. Over the past decade, Thomas’s work has been included in several reparative exhibitions that have cemented her place in Modern and abstract art, such as the forthcoming “Put it This Way: (Re)Visions of the Hirshhorn Collection” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden this summer. Thomas is currently the subject of a traveling, four-city retrospective titled “Everything Is Beautiful,” which closes on June 5th at the Frist Art Museum, before reaching its final stop, the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia, this July; the show was also featured at the Chrysler Museum of Art and The Phillips Collection.
Portrait of Alma Thomas with two students at the Howard University Art Gallery, 1928 or after. Courtesy of Alma W. Thomas Papers, The Columbus Museum, GA.
Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891 and spent two-thirds of her life living in and dealing with the effects of racially segregated environments in the United States. Her family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1907, when she was 15, to further her education; as Black Americans in Columbus, there were little to no educational opportunities beyond middle school.
In 1921, at the age of 30, Thomas enrolled in the Home Economics program at Howard University to pursue costume design; though she originally sought to pursue a career in architecture, Thomas abandoned that goal due to the lack of educational programs for Black women in the field. At Howard, her costumes caught the attention of James V. Herring, who founded the university’s department of art in 1921 and invited Thomas to join it. In 1924, Thomas became Howard’s first fine arts graduate. In 1934, she earned a master’s in education from Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Though she went on to a career in teaching, Thomas never ceased her painting practice. Her indefatigable approach to art shaped her painterly practice, leading her to experiment with Modern art styles like Cubism and pure abstraction over a 35 year period.
Alma W. Thomas, Untitled, 1922/1924. © Alma Thomas. Courtesy of The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection.
A masterful Untitled still life from 1924 displays the inspiration she gleaned from Paul Cézanne—particularly, his use of color, rather than line, to create a sense of form. Untitled is a vibrant, full-bodied painting where color is used to immerse audiences in a scene of wine bottles, a die, and other cube-like forms. The heavy use of red and pink across the painting dominate the mood, suggesting a hot, if not, sensuous tone that is heightened by the empty wine bottles. The red die is unusually large, occupying as much space as the wine bottles beside it, evoking a hint of Alice in Wonderland. This dreamlike still life evokes Thomas’s interest in the scene design and puppetry. Her master’s thesis, after all, was focused on marionettes.
Thomas began making abstract paintings in earnest in 1960, following her retirement at age 68. That was also when she finished a decade-long practice of taking modernist painting courses at American University. In Red Abstraction (1960), she used large swaths of red against a green background and black gestural lines to minimize depth. The painting is a free-flowing atmosphere dominated by color and brushstrokes.
The painting March on Washington (1964) documents Thomas’s participation in the titular march alongside her friend, opera singer Lillian Evanti. In it, the outlines of the marcher’s bodies combine to become a swirling blur of color and movement. The result is the effect or feeling of the march, rather than the specific representation of it.
Alma W. Thomas, Untitled, 1968. © Alma Thomas. Courtesy of Steve and Lesley Testan Collection, as curated by Emily Friedman Fine Art.
Thomas is best known for her distinctive, mosaic-like paintings, characterized by a heavy arrangement of warm blocks of yellow, orange, and red, bleeding into a smaller circular pattern of cool blues and purples. She began these works in 1966 with the painting Resurrection, which was made for her first gallery show at Howard University.
Her interest in color’s emotive properties began after reading Johannes Itten’s work on color theory. As she pursued abstraction in the 1960s, Itten’s scholarship on color and emotions led Thomas to use color as a force that can positively and negatively alter space and mood.
Thomas composed the mosaic paintings for her Whitney exhibition with strips of painted paper that she cut and placed on a stretched canvas to form a grid, as in Untitled (1968). This technique allowed Thomas to carefully build up the color on each work over time, as opposed to painting her colors all at once. X-rays of select paintings in “Everything is Beautiful” reveal Thomas as a masterful color corrector: the excessive buildup of color in some areas suggest that she added additional layers of darker colors for contrast and used white paint in some places to dilute intensity.
Installation view of Blast Off, 1970, Natures Red Impressions, 1968, Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968, aA Joyful Scene of Spring, 1968 in “Everything is Beautiful,” 2022, at Frist Art Museum. Photo by John Schweikert. Courtesy of Frist Art Museum.
In Blast Off (1970), Thomas used color and shape to represent the force and speed of a rocket. This imaginative subject matter conveys Thomas’s desire to escape or build another environment devoid of racial oppression; as Sun Ra put it, “space is the place.” In a 1979 Washington Post interview, Thomas shared her preference for being defined as an American artist rather than a Black artist. She said this precisely because her experiences as Black woman were, to her, distinctively American insofar as it was the United States’s segregationist policies that shaped her life and practice.
In spite of racial oppression, Thomas’s career did gain an audience during her lifetime and her renown has only continued to soar in the years since. The expansive world-building that emerges through Thomas’s deft use of color transforms audiences into space travelers. Even now, decades after her death, in seeing these paintings, Thomas sends us to the moon and beyond.
Thumbnail image: Portrait of Alma Thomas at Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition opening, 1972. Courtesy of the Alma Thomas papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution and Alma W. Thomas, Blast Off, 1970.