Despite a lack of widespread public recognition today, Thomas was fêted with a solo exhibition at the Whitney in 1972, just six years before her death. (It was the institution’s first show entirely devoted to an African-American woman.) A posthumous national touring retrospective organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art also celebrated her work from 1998–2000. What’s more, her work has been championed by presidents from Carter to Obama and included in multiple White House collections. Remarkably, these late-in-life recognitions are due not to the art world’s failure to catch on to her work but rather to the fact that Thomas did not find her artistic stride until she was in her mid-70s.
The first fine arts graduate of historically black Howard University, Thomas only began to devote herself to a career as an artist after she retired from more than three decades as a high school art teacher, at the age of 69. Thomas’s work then underwent a radical transformation from representation to colorful abstraction. Appropriating the work of Matisse and referencing black popular culture, Thomas developed a unique style, creating brightly hued, brick-shaped strokes that edge up against each other and coalesce into synchronous compositions. Neither overtly representational nor political, Thomas’s practice is unique among that of female African-American artists. And indeed, when asked if she saw herself as a black artist, Thomas responded
, “No, I do not. I’m a painter. I’m an American.”