Thornton Dial at his home in McCalla, Alabama, 2005. Photo: Matthew Arnett.


THE PASSING OF THORNTON DIAL in late January occasioned a host of meditations on the artist and the extraordinary body of art he produced from the 1980s through the last months of his life. Memorials touched on the emergence of Mr. Dial (a title of respect that he appreciated) as one of the great American artists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Some celebrated his biography, delving into his origins in rural Alabama, his labor in the workshops of industrial Bessemer, and the development of his art; others critiqued the application of confining labels—including folk, self-taught, and outsider—to the artist and his art. Mr. Dial, however, tended to keep his distance from those conversations, preferring to talk about his work through extended metaphors for the fraught relationships between art and history that mapped the American South he knew and extended into larger commentaries on world events.

On a cool, bright early April afternoon in 2012, Mr. Dial laid out part of that vision to me in front of a series of recently completed mixed-media paintings installed in his studio space in Bessemer. He gestured to a painting composed of goldenrod, olive, slate, and rags stiffened with white paint, this composite ground overlaid with a diagonally placed swatch of rusted fence wire, pieces of bent and twisted metal roofing, and a fragment of weathered wood. “When you look at art you start thinking,” he began, and then proceeded into a meditation on the history of art in the world. “You set down thinking about things you know have happened in the world,” he explained, “and a lot of things that have happened have been covered up. And covered up by what? By mules. Mules have been the power of the world.”

Thornton Dial, The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle, 2003, plastic soda bottles, doll, clothing, bedding, wire, found metal, rubber glove, turtle shell, artificial flowers, Splash Zone compound, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood, 75“ x 9' x 13”. © Thornton Dial. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.


Dial’s view of history raised several key themes that run through his work and mark a significant part of his intellectual and artistic legacy. As the mule pulls a plow, the blade cuts the soil and thereby raises up the past, bringing it to the surface, even as it turns under the present. In a similar way, Mr. Dial suggested, the past is always being raised around us, but we don’t always see it even as we pass through it in our day-to-day existence. The mule itself, he elaborated, is like a man. Coercion, no matter how violent, cannot force him to work. A mule, he remarked, can be beaten until it dies in its traces. And yet a mule will also work itself to death. Men too will resist to the death, and they will work willingly to the same end. The mule’s labors and the mule’s character fit into much larger cycles of being, where, as Mr. Dial succinctly put it, “life goes on.”

The analogy Mr. Dial constructed around his life, both as an artist and as an inheritor of the unfinished business of civil rights and the fight for human dignity in the United States and the world, was part of a complex, nuanced view of past and present: “That’s life . . . I love to think about what the mule could do. Sometimes he falls dead, but he still tried to do it. Mules do the same thing that men do. That’s life goes on. . . . The mule turns up stuff and reburies it. . . . I don’t care if you’re old or young, but that’s our whole life there, because as the mule pulls you’re going to find some art somewhere in the world.”

Bernard Herman is the George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies and chair of the department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Hema Upadhyay in her studio in Mumbai, 2009. Photo: Anne Maniglier.


THE PHOTO BY WHICH I REMEMBER Hema Upadhyay shows her alongside The Great Game, the work she created for the Iranian pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, where Mazdak Faiznia and I had invited her to participate: a glass cabinet, jam-packed with little multicolored clay birds, each holding a message or a fragment of a story in its beak to be brought to the far corners of the earth, flying beyond any border. Thinking now about how Upadhyay’s life (she was born in Vadodara, India, in 1972) has been brutally cut short in Mumbai, in a crime whose reasons are still obscure, provokes a sorrow that is difficult to comprehend, for it is as if someone showed no hesitation about ruining and destroying, in addition to her individual existence, the human talent that this artist exemplified at the highest level.

For Upadhyay had so much talent, and, in my opinion, she demonstrated it most conspicuously through works of great simplicity. As is often the case with artists from formerly “exotic” nations, impelled to describe an identity that moves beyond stereotypes, her initial subject was her own daily landscape and horizon, which she wanted to communicate to those who don’t know or were curious about it. This was the genesis of works that brought her worldwide renown—at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, for example, in the 2011 exhibition “Paris-Delhi-Bombay”; or at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, in the 2009 exhibition “Chalo! India: A New Era of Indian Art”—and that summarize in an image the sense of human precariousness: a multitude forever hovering at the edge, always on the move to survive. Indian Highway, 2009, her most effective piece, was an installation in which a gigantic backhoe shovel—a sort of monstrous mechanical T. Rex—threatens thousands and thousands of little papier-mâché houses, like the expanse of shanties that greets travelers to Mumbai even before they land, as their planes fly over the slums that besiege the Indian airport. Where the Bees Suck, There Suck I, 2008, is a moving image because it swiftly gets to the heart of the problem, providing an infinity of stratified and coexistent meanings: overpopulation, urbanization, the political and economic perils that loom over the weakest, fear of the future, humanity’s fate . . . all at a single glance composed of both emotion and reflection.

Hema Upadhyay, Where the Bees Suck, There Suck I, 2008, fiberglass and painted aluminum, dimensions variable. Installation view, MACRO Museum, Rome. Photo: Art Fundamental/Wikicommons.


This compositional reality and, above all, this ability to summarize a complex feeling in a simple and “popular” form, were Upadhyay’s most distinctive traits, and they endure in all her works, including the most recent, some of which were planned for “Megacities Asia” opening in April at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her works always focused on the theme of freedom.

In keeping with the folk wisdom that birds in flight know no borders and thus are a symbol of freedom, Upadhyay had begun to construct hundreds of brightly colored clay birds. Some were intended to fly, hung from a wire; others—most of them—to rest on a shelf, with little strips of printed paper in their beaks. This piece of a story was impossible to recompose but full of pathos by the very fact that the birds were dispersed throughout the world. And so just one of these birds would have signified “everything,” because it would have presupposed all the others, an entire flock that transports words, that is, ideas. And it matters little that one doesn’t know the narrative to which they relate. For what is truly important is that the words are transported everywhere, implying that, in fact, it is not possible to stop all birds, all ideas.

Hema was stopped today (what a tragic and unbearable waste!), but her words continue to fly.

Marco Meneguzzo is an independent curator and teacher at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

Austin Kelly on the deck at Nakahouse, Los Angeles, 2011. Photo: Steve King.


AUSTIN KELLY: He was a purveyor of a personal magic that joined the man with his fascination for architecture. I remember it first at Yale, where I encountered him when he was a student; then here in my office, where he worked; and later as he began to produce his own work. He was a Merlin type, though his magic came not from a top hat or a cape but from drawing and building. There was something rare in his personality, sometimes shared with others, sometimes belonging only to himself. Austin was an introvert first, I think, extrovert second—insular and gregarious simultaneously. And Austin’s architecture carried that duality, driven by an impetus to discover, the energy to explore. He was a searcher, a wonderer, a wanderer.

His conviction drove his production forward. Patient and impatient at the same time, he was interested in appearances but not simply for outward effect. He was always relentless in pursuit of his goal of making buildings new—a chase that always defines the architect’s architect.

XTEN Architecture, Madisonhouse, La Quinta, California. Photo: Steve King.


For Austin, architecture was never a conventional obligation, never an obligation to convention. Architecture was a way of thinking and working and living. Austin was always interrogating culture to see what it omitted, so he could fill in the gaps. No one fills them all. Austin filled his share.

Someone once described architecture as a river flowing forever from past to future. The best an architect can do is to drop an offering in the river and see if it floats. For Austin Kelly, the sailing will be smooth.

Eric Owen Moss directs Eric Owen Moss, Architects, Los Angeles.