Alma Thomas: Phantasmagoria - Major Paintings from the 1970s

by Donald Goddard


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March on Washington
March on Washington, 1964.
Oil on canvas,30 1/4" x 38 1/2".
(not in exhibition)

What the late paintings of Alma Thomas arrive at is not a conclusion, any more than the sky is, or any living thing is. The sky is as clear as it will ever be. There is nothing else but how things grow, how they come to be in certain patterns, according to light and color and shape. It is more than enough. I suppose they are like structures of cells or molecules, except that they reveal the process and the path of their making. Somehow, particularly in the last decade before her death at 86 in 1978, she found a way to make this revelation possible, to open up the equation between art and life.

When she painted March on Washington in 1964, she filled the surface with strokes of color representing people and placards advancing toward the viewer and filling the flat surface. The strokes of color then and in her later work are the immanence of an undeniable phenomenon. The bold abstractions of the Washington Color School, of Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland, and others, certainly had a powerful effect in freeing Thomas from traditional representational modes in the 1960s, but it is this coming forward that distinguishes her aesthetic and occupies our consciousness. Paintings by her fellow Washington artists appear static and formalistic in comparison.

Appropriate to her age, Thomas could have been a Cubist, an American regionalist, a Social Realist, a geometric abstractionist, an Abstract Expressionist. Instead, as she is quoted, "In the twenties I was interested in sculpture . . . then representational art in the thirties, along with marionettes. . . . In the forties and fifties I taught, had clubs of children, and started my move into pure color formations. During the sixties I started my own personal style." Her earlier work is wonderful, but her distinctive voice is that of the 1960s and '70s. Like no other artist, she contains history, not of art only but of society, so that she ends with a statement that, as Ann Gibson has pointed out, is "both aesthetic and social," artistic and political. She confronts us with the person who has lived through that history, culminating in the exposition of her own marks, the artist's marks, as the writing of history. There is no other history, except that which is experienced by individuals.


Phantasmagoria
Phantasmagoria, 1973.
Acrylic on canvas, 60" x 50".

The show's title painting, Phantasmagoria, expresses that idea. A phantasmagoria is a constantly changing phenomenon, particularly, in its primary meaning, one in which things rush out of the background to become larger in the foreground. The paintings are foregrounds in which all the energies of the past are contained in gestures up and down, across, and around the surface. Ironically, the phantasmagoria is not one of color, but rather of shape and movement. The orientation in this painting is basically vertical (five vertical panels), as it had been in many earlier works, but riotous color has been replaced by a dark blue monochrome. Rather than straight brushstrokes there are now triangles, rhomboids, rectangles, and arcs forming at times into larger patterns that stretch across the panel divisions. There is an intense interior movement that never comes to rest. Depth seems to work sideways, and everything is in focus in the marks of the artist.

Cherry Blossom Symphony
Cherry Blossom Symphony
, 1973.
Acrylic on canvas, 69" x 54".

Three other paintings of 1973 are devoted to cherry blossoms, and they are indeed outrageously pink. Blossoms take over the canvas in the form of hundreds of small strokes of pink which capture the glow of color and movement of shape in ways that replication cannot. These are total experiences in which no distractions from pure color relations are allowed, yet drawn from nature rather than intellectual constructs. In Cherry Blossom Symphony, the pinks are mixed with reds and whites at times and arrayed against a background of blues and blacks. It appears like a musical notation or a weaving in which every gesture and every interval is both unique and essential to the structure of the whole.

Hydrangeas Spring Song
Hydrangeas Spring Song
, 1976.
Acrylic on canvas, 72" x 48".

Flowers and music fill the four paintings of 1976 in this show, as they do in all of Thomas's last work. They belong to one another, expressions of nature and human ordination. Even in their strict patterning and stitching together, there remained something ephemeral about the earlier paintings, something associated with the Impressionist aesthetic of change--in light, color, shape. The later paintings are not ephemeral, whether loosely played out, like Hydrangeas Spring Song, or tightly constructed, like Scarlet Sage Dancing a Whirling Dervish. They have polarities and focuses rather than flickers and shiftings, and in that sense they are more dramatic than the earlier work. Thomas found her way into and through the maze, across the great, broad world she had created. Hydrangeas Spring Song pulls apart toward the right in the jumble of letters and shapes, but there is no fear of falling in the opening space.

Donald Goddard © 2001


The exhibition will continue through November 3, 2001, at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019. Tel. 212 247 0082. Fax. 212 247 0402. and will be at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas from December 7, 2001 through February 24, 2002.


i   Quoted from the catalogue essay by Lowery Stokes Simms, "Alma Thomas: Regional Force, American Great," pp. 7-11 in Alma Thomas: Phantasmagoria, Major Paintings from the 1970s. New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2000, 56 pp.

ii   I especially recommend Ann Gibson's essay, "Putting Alma Thomas in Place: Modernist Painting, Color Theory, and Civil Rights," pp. 38-43 in Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings. San Francisco: Pomegranite, 1998, 144 pp.


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