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 the ’60s whose name came from the Tutsi people in Africa.
There is often more than meets the eye in Thomas’s art, as Watusi (Hard Edge) suggests. It appears alongside Thomas’s best-known works—her radiant, colorful abstractions—in a traveling survey devoted to the artist. The show is now on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, which co-organized it with the Columbus Museum in Georgia. (Curated by Jonathan Frederick Walz and Seth Feman, it’s also set to travel to the latter institution, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Frist Art Museum in Nashville over the next year.) The exhibition offers proof that Thomas’s abstractions provide valuable insights into what it meant for her, as a Black woman, to take up a mode dominated largely by white men. It also exposes previously unseen parts of her oeuvre, including her marionettes and her fashion designs.
Below, a look at Thomas’s life and art.
Thomas’s goal had often been to achieve beauty.
Throughout her career, Thomas was clear that she always strove to create images that were pleasing to the eye. “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man,” she once said. Her works from the ’60s and ’70s, made after her retirement as a teacher, often feature dazzling arrays of blue, red, green, and purple acrylic strokes. She called these strokes “Alma’s Stripes.” Typically, there are blank spaces in between them that allow the canvas to peek out. Sometimes, these strokes are arranged in vertical lines that cause them to appear like falling leaves or hanging flowers; other times, they are composed in concentric circles. To obtain such a remarkable style, she versed herself in the color theories of Bauhaus artist Johannes Itten.
These dazzling paintings often alluded to Thomas’s own garden, which overflowed with flowers. Her 1968–70 painting Alma’s Garden features squarish swatches of deep blue and golden yellow that resemble tesserae in a mosaic. (Amid a wave of Covid-era deaccessioning, it was controversially sold by the Greenville County Museum of Art earlier this year for $2.8 million, generating a new record for Thomas.) To some, such a pleasant style seemed out of step back at the time the painting was made, a moment when instances of anti-Black violence were grabbing headlines and spurring protests across the country. As she was creating her luminous paintings in her own Washington, D.C., home—not in a dedicated studio, but in her kitchen—there were practically protests at her doorstep. She had attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and painted an image of it, but for the most part, her work did little to explicitly portray the tensions of the time and the fight for civil rights.
Thomas, for her part, did not like the label of “Black artist,” saying merely, “I am a painter. I am an American.” As curator Tiffany E. Barber puts it in the catalogue for the current Thomas survey, “She endeavored to infuse her work with meaning beyond racial and gender constraints. In so doing, she challenged the singularity of race.”
Art had always been a part of Thomas’s life.
Many have often assumed that Thomas became an artist mainly in the later stages of her career, after she retired as a high school art teacher in 1960 following a 35-year tenure. Although she produced her most famous works in the years after she left Shaw Junior High School, up until her death in 1978, Thomas had always been working toward being a full-time artist. As Seth Feman, one of the survey’s curators, writes in the catalogue, “With every drag of the brush on canvas, Thomas rooted her art in the physical order of things, and she would hold everyday and artistic matter together until the very end.”
Alma Woodsey Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891. Her family was the rare Black one living in the city’s middle-class Rose Hill neighborhood. At age 15, amid the continued threat of racism, Thomas and her family moved to Washington, D.C., where she was able to take art classes for the first time. She likened those classes to a sanctum, saying that they were “just where I belonged.” She later attended Howard University, where she was convinced by the artist James V. Herring, the professor who founded the institution’s art department, to change her major from home economics to art. She was the first woman to earn a degree in art from Howard. Later on, during the ’50s, she took graduate courses in art at American University.
Howard continued to occupy a central role in Thomas’s life through the end. In 1966, the school hosted a Thomas retrospective, deepening her admiration from the storied university’s vibrant community. And when she died, her memorial service was held at Howard. “Howard University remained always and forever at the center of her universe,” scholar Rebecca VanDiver writes.
There has been a recent push to recognize Thomas’s contributions to art history.
“At 77, She’s Made It to the Whitney,” read the New York Times headline for a 1972 profile of Thomas. The occasion was a joyous one: Thomas was having a solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York, the first Black woman to do so. (Not everyone was pleased, however—the Whitney faced accusations from activist groups like the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition that it was tokenizing a select few Black artists to mask a lack of progress behind the scenes.) “Who would have ever dreamed that somebody like me would make it to the Whitney in New York?” Thomas said.
Thomas is often considered a rediscovery, although it would be hard to say she ever entirely went away. She appeared in the late artist Mary Beth Edelson’s collage Some Living Women Artists (1972), an image of the Last Supper in which women artists replace Jesus and his apostles, and she had appeared in David C. Driskell’s seminal Los Angeles County Museum of Art survey “Two Centuries of Black American Art.” She has been considered a hero to generations of artists.
Yet there is no question that Thomas’s work has had more visibility nationally now than it ever has before. In 2015, the Obamas hung a painting by Thomas, Resurrection (1966) in the White House dining room. (Acquired that year, it is the first artwork by an African American woman to enter the White House Collection.) In 2016, Skidmore College and the Studio Museum in Harlem staged an acclaimed Thomas survey. In 2019, when the Museum of Modern Art rehung its collection, a painting by Thomas was nestled among some of Matisse’s most famous works.
Thomas’s greatest work may be a 13-foot-long abstraction.
Although Thomas’s works are always striking, even on a modest scale, the artist had a desire to dream bigger. Often considered a member of the Washington Color School, Thomas yearned to work like her colleague Sam Gilliam, whose stained canvases tower over the viewer and often taken on sculptural qualities. In her final years, her health precluded her from doing so. “I’d like to make [my] canvases bigger, like Sam Gilliam’s,” she once said, “but my arthritis is so bad that I can’t get up on my ladder.”
That wasn’t going to stop her from trying, however. In 1976, she made her most ambitious work, a 13-foot-long painting called Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music. (It is now owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which has the deepest holdings of Thomas’s paintings of any institution in the world.) Made with materials purchased for her by Gilliam, an artist several generations her junior, this painting is composed of three canvases, each of them lined with red-orange forms. The colored shapes are arranged into jagged, arcing patterns, causing them to appear to move before one’s eyes.
When it debuted in 1976 at New York’s Martha Jackson Gallery, critics were floored. Thomas herself was, too. “Do you see that painting?” she once said of Red Azaleas. “Look at it move. That’s energy and I’m the one who put it there. . . . I transform energy with these old limbs of mine.”
Correction, 7/23/21, 7:45 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the show’s co-organizer. It is the Columbus Museum in Georgia, not the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio. Additionally, a quote from Stanley Whitney misattributed to Thomas has been removed from this article.