In 1963, Alma Thomas set out to turn Henri Matisse on his head. Two years before, in 1961, she attended a show of Henri Matisse’s late-career gouaches at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There, she saw The Snail (1952–53), in which cut-and-pasted squares of colorful paper are arranged in a spiral-like shape, abstractly alluding to a gastropod without ever outright showing it.
Thomas got to work, effectively recreating the iconic Matisse gouache with a twist. Her version, titled Watusi (Hard Edge), likewise contains a jumble of rectangles, rhombuses, and squares. Look closely, however, and you realize that Thomas has rotated Matisse’s composition 90 degrees. The medium has changed, from gouache to acrylic on canvas, and arguably, the subject matter has changed, too. Judging by Thomas’s title, no longer does the work refer to an animal. Now, it may call to mind a dance style popular in