An artistic force well into her 80s, Alma Thomas established a bridge between earthly phenomena and the rigors of mid-century Modernist aesthetics while helping to pave the way for female and African-American artists. Thriving on an exhaustive study of color theory and her experience teaching the fundamentals of art to students for over three decades, Thomas’s style evolved from expressionist to non-representational as she continued to refine her practice well into her ninth decade. As she extracted influence from the patterns found in nature, she also kept an eye on extraterrestrial events, whether that was the burgeoning space program or the sun setting on the horizon. A stunning example of her later work, A Fantastic Sunset, was painted just two years before Thomas was honored with a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York. She was the first African-American female artist to be afforded such an honor, and this attests to her talent and perseverance as she continued to paint in a white male dominated field. In 1943, early in her career, she helped found the Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington, D.C., which was the first modern art gallery in the city and the first to break with segregatory practices. However, in an era rife with racial tension, “Thomas was a thoroughly abstract artist despite the expectation that African-American artists would address social concerns and issues of identity” (R. Kalina, “Through Color,” Art in America, July 20, 2016). This did not mean she was blind to societal disparity, but rather that she pushed through strictures and expectations in order to explore Modernism just as her colleagues were doing and in doing so left an indelible mark on the history of Color Field painting.
At nearly four feet square, A Fantastic Sunset is a chromatic burst of energy. Radiating outward from a red-orange disc, concentric rings of brushstrokes traverse the entire spectrum. Though the inner circle is solid, the colors that encircle it are typical of Thomas’s output. Each layer shows her attraction to using steady, separated blocks of color in strips or bands of uniform hues. At times her colors and shapes are more solid and crisp as in the Matissean ode, Watusi (Hard Edge) (1963), but other works of the period, like Springtime in Washington (1971) and Red Violet Nursery View From Above (c. 1970), display an approach similar to the current lot with regard to paint application and composition (though the latter is in vertical bands instead of rings). As the brushstrokes vacillate between being independent building blocks and singular examples of the artist’s painterly incursions, Thomas’s interest in seriality takes hold. Her works from the 1970s were especially concerned with this idea, and Holland Cotter notes, “She kept playing with this model. She intensified the colors; laid light colors over dark. She went through a jazzy rainbow phase. She shaped the blocky strokes into chips, like puzzle pieces or pavement stones. She made the strokes sinuous and calligraphic, so they float and suddenly disperse like leaves in a wind” (H. Cotter, “White House Art: Colors from a World of Black and White,” The New York Times, Oct. 10, 2009). Marked by a continuous evolution in style, Thomas’ oeuvre grew into an intensive study on color and form.
Born in Columbus, Georgia at the turn of the 20th century, Thomas moved north with her family in her teens to the nation’s capital. She was the first graduate of the Howard University arts program in Washington, DC, and was involved extensively in the area’s art scene. After completing her studies, she devoted much of her life to teaching art in public schools until her retirement at the age of 69. It was then that her passion turned to painting full time in a studio she fashioned in her kitchen. During her career, she painted in a number of different styles, but her mature period (after her retirement from teaching) saw works like A Fantastic Sunset and other canvases that firmly placed Thomas in the upper echelon of color field abstractionists. This mastery of the medium, as well as her powerful emergence into the modern art scene at a late age, was not a fluke. Thomas was keen to learn and grow throughout her life, and constantly visited New York to see the latest exhibitions, took classes, and even continued her studies in the 1950s at American University where her work first began tending toward the abstract. She was offered a retrospective at Howard University in the 1960s, and decided to completely break from representation, noting in an interview, “At the American University, I was doing representational painting. But I wasn’t happy with that, ever. [...] I decided to try to paint something different from anything I’d ever done. Different from anything I’d ever seen. I thought to myself, ‘That must be accomplished.’ [...] So I sat down right in that chair, that red chair here in my living room, and I looked at the window. And you can see exactly what I saw, right before my eyes, from where I was sitting in the chair. Why, the tree! The holly tree! I looked at the tree in the window, and that became my inspiration. [...] I got some watercolors and some crayons, and I began dabbling. And that’s how it all began. The works have changed in many ways, but they are still all little dabs of paint that spread out very free. So that tree changed my whole career, my whole way of thinking” (A. Thomas, quoted in E. Munro, “The Late Spring Time of Alma Thomas,” The Washington Post, April 15, 1979). By establishing her signature mark in that first painting of the tree through her window, Thomas unlocked a personal connection between her observations of the world and her academic interest in Modernist painting.
Though Thomas is often connected to the Washington Color Painters, her oeuvre stands as a unique testament to a more singular interest in not only color fields and a concentration on the flatness of the picture plane, but also the connection between art and nature. She worked alongside, and was an acquaintance of, artists like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Sam Gilliam, yet an indebtedness to the natural world and the gardens of Washington, D.C. is prevalent within her works. Paintings like A Fantastic Sunset, with its solar orb glowing red like the descending sun, make the linguistic jump from shape and color to an invocation of celestial phenomena. As someone who lived through much of the tumultuous 20th century, Alma Thomas grew with the world and its accomplishments. Teaching art, she expanded her knowledge so that she could impart it to her students, and in her own practice, the ever-expanding field of painting allowed her an outlet for innovation, and a space in which to comment on the rapid changes that she witnessed in her every day.