The exhibition will also underscore Thomas’s engagement with flowers and nature distilled in large-scale canvases, such as Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers (1968). These works, highlighting Thomas’s signature style, bristle with broken stripes of almost every color in the spectrum, with different hues peeking through the top layer of color. Another room will focus on paintings influenced by imagery from early space flights, including Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset (1970) from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The orange orb brimming with rows of staccato brushstrokes, balanced perfectly inside an atmospheric square field of paler orange, is both minimal in geometry and maximal in optical effects.
The final gallery will show paintings from the mid-1970s, when Thomas’s brush marks start to deviate from their ordered lines to form rhythmic webs and mosaic patterns. “She’s in her 80s and making her most confident nature-inspired images,” says Berry. In the final painting included, Hydrangeas Spring Song (1976), Thomas’s deep blue marks fall free-form like wedges and commas through white space, breaking apart as they tumble.
For the curators, who are pulling together many works never or rarely exhibited, “it’s the kind of show where you feel like you’re really adding something to the telling of art history,” says Berry. While the Smithsonian put on a major Thomas exhibition in 1981, three years after her death, this is the first museum retrospective since a 1998 show organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Indiana. “As museums start pulling their Alma Thomas works out and showing them more, people almost unanimously are moved by them,” says Berry. “All these paintings that we’re borrowing from great museums, maybe when they get them back they’ll put them up rather than back in storage. That’s definitely a hope and a goal.”