Alma Thomas

The Studio Museum in Harlem
144 West 125th Street
July 14, 2016–October 30, 2016

Alma Thomas, Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset, 1970, acrylic on canvas, 48 48".

Among her kaleidoscopic abstractions of botanical and celestial phenomena, a statement by Alma Thomas is stenciled on the museum wall: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” Taken axiomatically, this might read as Pollyanna denial or cool aestheticism. But in their claim to universal subjectivity and transcendent beauty, there’s an indisputable if paradoxical politics in the paintings of the late Washington, DC, abstractionist, who—at the age of eighty, in 1972—became the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum.

With their ribbons, wheels, and allover patterns of abbreviated brushstrokes, Thomas’s paintings are romantic but not mystical, emotive but not sentimental, pretty but not precious. In Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969, Fauve-style garlands of tessera-like gobbets of paint shuttle up and down the canvas. A torrent of feathery brushstrokes against a blue-black ground, the dreamy, disco-pink Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1973, recalls Monet’s woozy, horizonless lily ponds. One of several NASA-inspired paintings, Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset, 1970, riffs on aerospace as a source of abstraction, estrangement, and galactic sublimity. The planet—viewed from some astronomical distance—becomes fiery bands of red, orange, and yellow, suspended in a gaseous poppy-colored field.

For a modernist humanist such as Thomas, art transcended spatial, temporal, and political exigencies. “Creative art is for all time,” she insisted, “and is therefore independent of time . . . of age, race, and nationality.” Though resistant to identitarian politics and social dramas, Thomas’s art was unavoidably entangled in them. They impelled her late-in-life break into the Whitney, following activist demands for the inclusion of African American artists. Two oil sketches depicting the 1963 March on Washington—in which she participated as a septuagenarian— give historical texture to Thomas’s astral abstractions, grounding them in ongoing, unresolved antinomies of abstraction and representation, universalism, and difference.

— Chloe Wyma