Alma Thomas was the first African-American woman to be featured in the White House art collection; the first African-American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art; the first person to graduate from Howard University with a degree in Fine Art. As an artist who achieved unprecedented success in the face of iniquity, Thomas is now honored in a retrospective exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Thomas’s biography is so impressive as to beg the question: why does her work not appear in major museums more often? During her life, she never fit into a certain artistic category, and the question still stands of whether she belongs on the ‘outside’ or ‘inside’ of twentieth century art.
Thomas broke barriers all her life. She did not seriously begin her artistic career until she was sixty-nine years old. Between 1969 and 1972, by then in her eighties, Thomas developed a series of paintings devoted to space exploration. “Apollo 12 “Splash Down,” a brilliant seascape of pink sky and surging water, is one of her triumphs.
”Starry Night and the Astronauts,” another work from this series, offers a reinterpretation of the “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. In this painting, Thomas takes up Van Gogh’s palette of ink-blue, white, and dazzling yellow, but she dramatically changes the composition. Now, the viewer is not looking up from a village field towards the starry sky. In Thomas’s “Starry Night,” there is no horizon; the earth is nowhere to be seen. A small, red-yellow patch of color is floating through vast, open space. Her brushstrokes in various blues, from ink to teal, create a dynamic effect similar to that of Van Gogh’s dancing stars. The bright speck of human life seems to be flying upwards at great speed, as space blurs and recedes below it in streaks of changing color.
If a historian were to pick one work of art to stand for the American twentieth century, this may well be it. Thomas’ “Starry Night” is abstract, bold, and daringly optimistic, and it celebrates the human ability to transcend one’s situation. It shifts our perspective much like exploration did: in Thomas’ painting, the astronauts are the miracle to behold, not the stars.
At that time of her life, Thomas still recalled the “horse-and-buggy days” of her childhood. She was born before the first airplane was invented, and lived to witness the moon landing. In her retirement years, she would draw and paint as she listened to reports of space exploration on the radio.
Alma Thomas, Outsider?
Even though she eventually earned recognition, Thomas lived with adversity and exclusion most of her life. To her, art was a turn away from bitter experiences and a deliberate search for beauty which, she believed, always existed in the world—even in her segregated Washington neighborhood. After her death, Thomas has been subtly excluded again. She rarely appears in narratives of Abstract Expressionism or Color Field painting, or in surveys of American art in general.
Is it absurd to call Alma Thomas an outsider artist? Her remarkable life story exemplifies how unstable our categories are. On the one hand, one would have to answer “no,” as she was not self-taught: she obtained not one, but two fine art degrees (she got her MFA from the American University in Washington). On the other hand, Thomas did not put those degrees to use for most of her life–unlike her MA in Education from Columbia University, which led to her career as a high school art teacher in Washington, D.C. Building a new life as an artist in her seventies, she was very much in the position of an outsider.
Thomas could be called an outsider artist in a triple sense: in terms of her gender, race, and age. While she received recognition during her lifetime, her place in the canon of twentieth-century art has been far from guaranteed. As the wall text in the Studio Museum exhibition points out, this is “the first comprehensive look at the artist’s work in nearly twenty years.”
While the term “outsider” may seem absurd, in some ways it accurately portrays the situation. Thomas’s work is periodically being ‘rediscovered’–as it was at the Women’s Museum in Dallas, Texas, in 2001. We do not need to uncover that which we have not forgotten.
Who Gets to Be an ‘Insider’ Artist?
In a powerful article in the Huffington Post entitled “Should We Stop Using The Term ‘Outsider Art’?,” Priscilla Frank argues that we should. She focuses on Kevin Sampson, a contemporary artist who denounces the label as “offensive.” Sampson is outspoken about the damage that this classification can do to one’s art, potentially devaluing it. “It’s hard enough to be an African-American artist. Now we have to be ‘outsiders’?” Sampson said.
In her time, Thomas struggled with similar issues. The exhibition at the Studio Museum is structured in a way that highlights her choice to move away from constraining identities and to establish herself as simply, and purely, an artist.
In the first section of the show, entitled “Move to Abstraction,” we see two small oil studies for her 1964 painting “March on Washington” (the finished painting is not featured in the show). A mass of figures, in dark blues and greens, hold up white placards whose bright surfaces take up about half of the canvas. The painting is already partially abstracted, with the dark human figures and the blue-white placards resembling a composition of sea and sky. However, this work has an overt political subject: a Civil Rights protest.
These are the only human figures, and the only realistic representations in the entire show. Soon after painting them, Thomas rejected this kind of art. In 1970, she stated, “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”
The exhibition tracks Thomas’s interests and preoccupations throughout her short, but highly prolific artistic career. The artist often records the patterns of color and movement that she observes in her garden. In “Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers,” she uses stripes of warm ochres, browns, and reds to evoke an image of wilting flowers swaying in the wind. “White Roses Sing and Sing” resembles blooming pale roses hanging in dense clusters over a mass of green. The rhythms Thomas creates with color and pattern, such as stripes or swirls, can read as musical compositions.
Thomas produces endless variations with the scale she has invented for herself. Her canvases represent varying moods and natural conditions. “Approaching Storm at Sunset” of 1973 conjures a tense atmosphere of anticipation; blood-red brush marks clash with a background of turquoise and lime green. “Cherry Blossom Symphony” of the same year is a celebration of joy and hope, with strokes in the same shade of light pink repeated over and over against a layer of blue. No matter the subject she chooses, Thomas distills abstract truths from the particular and creates images of universal value. Even “Starry Night and the Astronauts” does not show us any one event or spaceship; rather, it depicts the changing human condition in the space age. With her work, she hoped to reach a wide audience across the boundaries of race, age, or social class–in some ways a continuation of her career as an educator, during which she worked to bring art to children across Washington, D.C.
Yet the conditions of the artist’s reception today are more uncertain. If, during her lifetime, Thomas was honored with a retrospective at the Whitney Museum, dedicated to American art at large, her major shows in this century–at the (now defunct) Women’s Museum in Dallas and at the Studio Museum in Harlem–have instead highlighted Thomas’s identity as a woman and as an African-American. In a sense, they have situated her more towards the outside.
Perhaps this is necessary: insisting on identities that are not well-represented in the art world, and making spaces for them, is important in a system which still values Mark Rothko or Kenneth Noland higher than their female counterparts (Noland was, along with Thomas, a member of the Washington Color School; but Thomas was not accorded the level of recognition that he has received). We can hope that, one day, naming someone an “outsider artist” or an “African-American artist” or a “woman artist” would sound as redundant and absurd as saying they are a “male artist” or “human artist.” But we are not there yet.
In the November 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine, an eighty-one year old woman from Appalachia–a place too often left on the outside of American society and culture–was interviewed about her opinion on potentially having a female president. “I’m glad I’m alive to see it,” the woman said. “I used to think landing on the moon was a big deal. This is bigger.”
This is bigger. The paintings of space are not even the most remarkable part of Thomas’ career. Art serves the purpose of showing us the not-yet-possible: Thomas’s doggedly optimistic art paints a world in which anyone can be on the moon, anyone can enjoy beauty, anyone can become a great artist.
In 1972, Thomas said, addressing her outsider/insider status: “One of the things we couldn’t do was get into museums, let alone hang our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.” Look at her life’s work: Thomas broke so many boundaries, and she dared to envision a world without any. So far, this has proven more complicated than landing on the moon. Perhaps, one day, we will get there.
We are thankful to Abbe Schriber, a former curatorial assistant at the Studio Museum in Harlem and currently a PhD candidate in Art History at Columbia University, for discussing the intersections between African-American and outsider art.
All images provided by The Studio Museum in Harlem. Alma Thomas exhibition runs until October 30, 2016. Organized by Lauren HAyes, Associate Curator, Permanent Collection and Ian Berry, Dayton Director of the Tang Museum.