"I say everyone on earth should take note of the spring of the year coming back every year, blooming and gorgeous."
Painted in 1968, when the artist was seventy-seven years old, Alma Thomas’s Flash of Spring is one of the artist’s first fully abstract works, deploying her signature brushwork in response to the burgeoning energy of nature. Between her 1966 retrospective at Howard University, and her death at age eighty-six in 1978, Thomas created a staggering array of kaleidoscopic paintings, where bright, jewel-like colors, often arranged in vertical bands or concentric circles, are comprised of square dabs of paint that call to mind the tessellated look of mosaics or stained glass. Because she spent most of her life in Washington, D.C., she is often associated with artists of the Washington Color School such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, and though she shares with them a modernist taste for flatness and the emotive power of color, she remained inspired by the natural world. Thomas never stained directly onto unprimed canvas or used masking tape as edging, and her paintings are the accumulation of countless intimate gestures that retain the spontaneity of the artist’s hand. Painted at the height of her mature period, Flash of Spring epitomizes Thomas’s best and most celebrated work. With its exuberant palette of bright, rainbow colors, the painting embodies the joie-de-vivre for which she is best known.
Alma Thomas was born in 1891 in Columbus, Georgia, and later moved to Washington, D.C., where she spent thirty-five years teaching art to elementary-school children. In 1960, at the age of sixty-nine, she retired from teaching in order to devote herself more fully to painting. Thomas was well-versed in the theoretical principles of Modernist art, beginning with her earliest studies at the prestigious Howard University, where she became the first student to graduate with a Fine Arts degree in 1924 (some speculate that she was the first African American woman ever to obtain a degree in Fine Arts). In the 1950s, she took classes at American University, where she explored the color theories of Johannes Itten, an important Bauhaus figure whose beliefs about color sequencing and contrast proved invaluable to her development. She was also an avid museum- and gallery-goer, and was a lively and supportive presence in the D.C. arts scene. She frequently visited the Phillips Collection, where she studied Cézanne’s Garden at Les Lauves (1906), a sparse landscape comprised of hovering, rectangular planes of color. She later said this painting gave her the confidence to use color in structuring her compositions. Two exhibitions of the mid-sixties, of Matisse and the Color Field painters, also played a role in the formation of her signature style.
1966 marked a turning point in Thomas’s work, when her paintings achieved an assured maturity, the result of her consummate knowledge of the plastic qualities of art-making. That year she had been asked by Howard University to prepare a series of new paintings for an upcoming retrospective of her work. Hard-pressed to create an oeuvre in step with the contemporary art of her day, Thomas looked to the natural world for inspiration. She later explained: “I decided to try to paint something different from anything I’d ever done. Different from anything I’d ever seen. [...]So I sat down right in that chair…[and] 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, 15 April 1979).
Flash of Spring belongs to the highly-coveted body of work that Thomas created toward the end of the 1960s, paintings inspired by the abstract design of the lush gardens around her home in Washington, D.C. It pays homage to Thomas’s most significant recurring motif—Spring. Its chromatic palette spans the full spectrum of the rainbow; sinuous columns of primary colors in red, yellow, and blue are nestled next to intermediate colors such as orange, green, indigo and violet. These ribbons of loosely-stacked rectangular strokes rise upward as if part of a living organism, while spreading outward in rainbow-order as if gently swayed by a passing breeze. Beneath the colorful patches of pigment, a luminous white underlayer can be seen peeking through the cracks between each stroke. This imparts a powerful sense of depth that opens up the arrangement and allows it to breathe, creating a subtle sense of movement. In places, Thomas applied extra white pigment to shore up the divisions between the color segments. This key technique enlivens the composition, accentuating its own internal rhythm, which some critics have likened to music.
While Thomas might have benefitted from an association with the Color School painters, her working method differed from the “soak-stain” technique that Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler pioneered. She always worked on primed canvases rather than raw cotton duck. Rather than insist on the painting’s flatness, Thomas took pains to create layers of visual depth in her work. In Flash of Spring, this is certainly the case, where each tessellated square is actually comprised of several ultra-thin layers of paint. What might at first appear to be a quick flick of the wrist using straight-from-the-tube paint, is actually the result of careful layering, done by an artist with both an in-depth knowledge and instinctive understanding of the interaction of color and light. In Flash of Spring, for example, the light green segments are tinged with yellow, and the violet passage along the left edge contains barely perceptible layers of bright pink, dark blue, and deeper red. In this way, Thomas’s colors are more closely linked to the natural world, where the effects of dappled sunlight assure that no two colors are ever the same for more than an instant.
Thomas’s use of white to buttress and aerate her composition is most likely related to the many watercolor studies that she made, beginning in the mid-fifties and well into the years leading up to 1966, as studies for larger paintings. Watercolor necessitates quick, spontaneous decision-making, and working in such a medium undoubtedly contributed to the assurance and verve with which Thomas attacked her canvases. In Flash of Spring, each individual gesture feels effortless and quick, and the bright, joyous colors belie the physical and mental energy required to create such an intricate work.
Celebrated for their exuberant palette of bright, jewel-like colors and the mosaic-like arrangement of her short, staccato strokes, Alma Thomas’s paintings are breathtaking to behold — precious relics from her remarkable, late-in-life flourishing. Although she lived through one of the most turbulent, politically divisive eras of American history, she resisted being judged by the color of her skin or the limitations of her gender. She believed, as explained by her teacher and lifelong friend, the painter Jacob Kainen, that “paintings nourish the spirit.” Indeed, her abstract paintings speak a universal language that give them a timeless appeal, not unlike the uplifting joie-de-vivre of a Matisse cut-out or a mobile by Alexander Calder. As she herself explained, “Creative art is for all time, and is therefore independent of time. It is of all ages, of every land...common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race and nationality" (A. Thomas, quoted in I. Berry, ed., Alma Thomas, exh. cat., Studio Museum in Harlem, 2016, p. 233).