WASHINGTON, DC — Alma Thomas was born in Georgia in 1891. When she was 15, her relatively prosperous Black family moved to Washington, DC, where she lived and worked for most of the rest of her life. The first fine arts graduate of Howard University (1924), in 1934 she received her masters degree in art education from Columbia University. Thomas taught high school art until 1960, was heavily involved in her local art scene, attended concerts at the Phillips Collection, and showed in local galleries. She loved to garden and was an active Episcopalian. And in the 1970s she participated in debates about the goals of Black artists before her death in 1978. Well read and sociable, she liked popular rock music, which provided titles for some of her works. And judging by the extensive quotations in the catalogue for Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful, currently at the Phillips Collection, she was a lucid writer. Thomas believed in a color-blind universality. “Some of us may be black, but that’s not the important thing,” she once said, “The important thing is for us to create, to give form to what we have inside of us.” Late in life, thanks in part to her 1972 Whitney Museum exhibition, Thomas’s work was acquired by a number of major American museums. And her painting “Mars Reflection” (1972) is owned by the CIA.
Thomas was a gifted figurative artist. The stunning painting “Grandfather’s House” (1952) shows her mastery of color. “Still Life with Mandolin” (1955) is a splendid and perfectly poised composition. And “They Laid Him in the Tomb” (1968), which focuses on the dark figure of Christ, is a convincing sacred work. Though not usually a political painter, she did an important sketch, “March on Washington” (1963), portraying the crowd at the Civil Rights march, which she attended.
Then, after retiring from teaching, Thomas replaced her oils with acrylic, and made superb abstractions, the physically large works that established her present reputation. The exceptional “Fiery Sunset” (1973) is a powerful all-over composition. In “Red Roses Sonata” (1972), ripples of short, vertical red marks stand against a luminescent background. And her great “Watusi (Hard Edge)” (1963) is a masterful appropriation of one of Henri Matisse’s color cut outs. “If an old, crippled-up man can do that,” she told a friend, then “I can do it,” too. At the very end of her life, when her physical mobility was restricted, she did the enormous “Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music” (1976), a triptych that is a masterpiece.
Many of the details provided in the intelligent exhibition catalogue, which has guided my account, are valuable. I learned about the protests by Black artists at New York museums in the 1970s and about the pressure that many of these artists felt to do figurative works, which didn’t have an influence on Thomas. The catalogue includes an engaging discussion of her interest in theater and costume design. But not enough is said about the details of her schooling. What, I wonder, did she learn in her art education? And what were her own classes like? There are informative notes on her working process, but less on how to theorize her art. And the catalogue’s many commentators don’t focus on the most interesting artistic question: Why, after making very successful figurative works, did Thomas turn, in her retirement, to abstraction? If her late works are often associated with those of Morris Louis and the other DC color field painters, presumably that is because in Washington those abstract artists were influential. Actually, however, Thomas’s abstractions are more closely akin to those by Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell. But it’s not clear from the catalogue whether she was familiar with their paintings.
If the goal of an art museum is to make the best possible case for championing a marginalized artist, then both the catalogue and the visual presentation at the Phillips Collection are sadly limited. A well-edited display of Thomas’s paintings could present her as one of the finest artists of her generation. Here, however, the display of many minor works does no service to her reputation. We see lots of sketches and some paintings that obviously aren’t entirely successful. Because the installation is not in chronological order, it isn’t easy to picture her development. And with 19 authors the catalogue is unhappily unfocused. A reprint of some of Thomas’s writings might have been more illuminating. My very tentative sense is that Thomas’s abstract multicolored pointillist works like “Spring Flowers Near Jefferson Memorial” (1970) aren’t as memorable as her all-over fields of mostly single colors. Here, I think her love of flower gardens played her false, for these visual compositions don’t hold together well. And I had similar problems with some of the other late abstractions, which can seem formless because they contain too many colors — “Summer Reflections” (1970) is one example. Her most compelling abstractions are the all-over compositions dominated by markings in one color.
How should a museum present a too-little-known Black artist who deserves greater recognition? We certainly need information about her life and the art context in which she worked. Still, the inclusion of works by other Black Washington artists, including Thomas’s friend Sam Gilliam, or by some of her white peers, such as Kenneth Noland, was distracting. And it was unnecessary, for Thomas’s paintings, which are different from theirs, are strong enough to stand on their own. Major museums have an unhappy tendency to sometimes flesh out presentations of Black artists, as if our institutions lacked proper self-confidence in their own connoisseurship. The Met Breuer’s Kerry James Marshall show five years ago similarly propped up the display of his paintings, which hardly needed such support, with comparative materials and works that he admired by other artists. Thomas was a major artist who in her lifetime was unjustly denied the acclaim she merited. She deserves a well-organized display of her best work. But this show is a brave beginning.