27 years ago, Ricco/Maresca Gallery—then located on Hudson Street—opened the first New York show of Thornton Dial and the Dial family. This show was followed by two subsequent shows: “His Spoken Dreams” (1999) and “Drawings” (2000). This past May 22, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened “History Refused to Die,” an exhibition (and accompanying catalog) consisting of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and quilts by self-taught contemporary African American artists from the South—all donated in 2014 by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. We congratulate them on this achievement... There is something to be said about staying the course!
From the museum’s release: “History Refused to Die [features] the mixed-media art of Thornton Dial (1928–2016)—whose monumental assemblage from 2004 provides the exhibition's title—and a selection of the renowned quilts from Gee's Bend, Alabama, by quilters such as Annie Mae Young (1928–2012), Lucy Mingo (born 1931), Loretta Pettway (born 1942), and additional members of the extended Pettway family. Among other accomplished artists to be featured are Nellie Mae Rowe (1900–1982), Lonnie Holley (born 1950), and Ronald Lockett (1965–1988) … Their subjects are likewise varied, rooted in personal history and experience, regional identity—particularly common legacies of slavery and post-Reconstruction histories of oppression under the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws”.
Dial was born in Emelle, Alabama. He grew up in poverty and received almost no schooling, staying essentially illiterate all his life. Lacking conventional toys, Dial and his siblings constructed playthings out of discarded items, a practice that influenced his later work as a sculptor. He worked for the Pullman Standard Company for 30 years; he did iron and cement work and was a sort of jack-of-all-trades. Dial dedicated himself exclusively to art only come age 55—when he was laid off from his job—and in the three decades that followed he produced a vast oeuvre depicting the poignant complexities of African American experience within the American narrative.
This online exhibition presents a series of drawings (produced by Dial between 1993 and 1997) that have never been exhibited. The artist’s works on paper offer powerful insights into his psyche and vision, their fluidity and immediacy counterbalance the dense baroque qualities of his three-dimensional works. Dial completed each drawing in a quick bout of creative energy, capturing pictorial ideas while still crisp. This expressionistic drive materializes in sinuous lines, disjointed shapes, and forceful pigment stains. Figuration is lucidly entangled with abstraction and deconstruction in a kind of controlled chaos.
One of these works (Untitled/Vertical Abstract with Faces, 1996) seems to echo the spirit of Dial’s assemblages, signaling many individual faces meshed in a collective mass. The others represent leitmotifs for the artist: women as eroticism personified (malleable creatures often anthropomorphizing fish and birds), or the interactions between men and women—sometimes dark and restless, other times bright and ecstatic.