‘Testaments by the people who lived it’: Jane Fonda on the courageous works of Black artists of the American South

A longstanding collector of Thornton Dial and his contemporaries in Alabama, Fonda has assembled an incredible collection that highlights an important tradition in American art

On 18 January, Christie’s is honoured to present Things Grow in the United States: Works from the Collection of Jane Fonda, as part of the Outsider and Vernacular Art auction. The collection features major works by Thornton Dial, as well as his brother Arthur Dial and his son Thornton Dial, Jr. 

An Academy Award­-winning actor, author, and activist, Fonda, is a long-time supporter and collector of Black artists from the American South, whom she first encountered through the art historian and patron Bill Arnett, an early champion of Dial and other like artists.

Fonda still remembers her first trip to Arnett’s home in Atlanta in the 1990s. ‘It was chock-a-block full of these paintings by Thornton Dial, by Lonnie Holley, by Joe Minter, by so many other Black artists of the South,’ she recalls. ‘You literally had to suck your stomach in to go through the door.’ 

At the time, Fonda was a collector of plein air paintings — mostly early California landscapes by female painters. She was deeply moved by the art she saw at Arnett’s: ‘I couldn't believe the dynamism, the energy, the courage, the rawness of these works.’ It marked a turning pointing in her collecting — ‘I bought a number of things right then and there,’ she adds. 

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Thornton Dial (1928-2016), Untitled, 1993. Mixed media with wire, gloves, cloth and Splash Zone compound on canvas. 64 x 66 in. Sold for $37,800 in Outsider and Vernacular Art on 18 January 2023 at Christie's in New York.

From that point on she got to know the artists Arnett was supporting, visiting their home studios and yard art displays in Birmingham and surrounding communities in Alabama. 

She was particularly drawn to the work of Thornton Dial, a self-taught artist whose dynamic paintings and assemblages of found objects depict the struggles of Black Americans. His vibrant, unflinching depictions offer incisive social commentary on racism, sexism and the violence of war. 

When asked about the power of art as a form of activism, Fonda notes, ‘I don't know of more powerful statements about the challenges faced in the Jim Crow South than these works of art. These aren't just commentaries on social wrongs. These are testaments to them by people who experienced it, who lived it.’

‘These aren't just commentaries on social wrongs. These are testaments to them by people who experienced it, who lived it’ — Jane Fonda

While Dial and his contemporaries are frequently framed as outsider artists, or sometimes vernacular or folk artists, Fonda refrains from categorizing them: ‘I prefer to refer to these artists without the need for qualifying adjectives,’ she says. 

She situates Dial, Holley and Minter’s use of found objects in the tradition of the readymade in American post-war art: ‘They made things out of what they found in their environment. They’re so brilliant in the way they repurpose materials, and they did it with an impact that very few other artists ever had.’

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Thornton Dial (1928-2016), The Hills and Mountains of Vietnam, 1987. Mixed media including painted sheet metal and wood 24¼ x 98½ in. Sold for $32,760 in Outsider and Vernacular Art on 18 January 2023 at Christie's New York

Dial, who incorporated metalworking techniques into his art, began as a steelworker in segregated Bessemer, Alabama. ‘He made railroad cars for white passengers that he could never travel in,’ says Fonda. And it motivated him to dare to make art that ‘portrayed the struggle of Black people in the face of unremitting racism and discrimination’. 

Dial's work now resides in the permanent collections of major institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ‘I was so happy to see works of Thornton Dial hanging with those of Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and others in the Met,’ says Fonda. ‘Still, there is a lot more to be done. We have to see these artists assessed as leading figures of the 20th century.’

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Arthur Dial (1930-2021), Eve and Adam, 1989. Mixed media including enamel, carpet, ribbon and wire on board. 48 x 72 in. Sold for $2,520 in Outsider and Vernacular Art on 18 January 2023 at Christie's in New York

Dial was part of a creative family, and Fonda also collected works by his brother, Arthur Dial, and his son, Thornton Dial, Jr. The works in Things Grow in the United States include a number of pieces Fonda lived with and feels a strong personal connection to, including two sculptural benches made by Dial, Jr. ‘I had those animal benches in my apartment in Atlanta for 20 years. I just adore them.’

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Thornton Dial, Jr. (b. 1953), Untitled (Horse / Lion Bench in Red and White), c. 1989-90. Mixed media and painted wood. 34¾ x 60 x 17½ in. Sold for $9,450 in Outsider and Vernacular Art on 18 January 2023 at Christie's in New York

In 2000 Fonda partnered with Arnett to form Tinwood Books, which has published seminal volumes on African American art of the South including Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art and The Quilts of Gee's Bend

She is also a trustee of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, dedicated to promoting the work of Black contemporary artists from the South-eastern United States, as well as supporting their communities by fostering economic empowerment, racial and social justice, and educational advancement. 

‘We cannot allow racism and discrimination to keep this art from being included in the national family of artwork, which it has been for too long,’ she says.

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