Alma Thomas in the White House

Obama has borrowed art from several Washington museums to decorate the white house. One of the choices was the abstract expressionist, Alma Thomas.


Holland Cotter discusses the life and work of Alma Thomas in the Sunday Times Week in Review section, naming her the artist in the Obama collection he would choose for his own apartment.

In the 1950s, she took weekend studio classes at American University, working briefly with Jacob Kainen, one of a group of abstract painters — Gene Davis, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland were others — gaining national attention as the Washington Color School. Thomas, who loved color above all else in art, always felt a kinship with them.

Thomas herself was a popular favorite in her late-blooming career. Howard gave her a retrospective in 1966. In 1972, at 80, she was the first African-America woman to have a solo at the Whitney Museum. Critics raved. There was a second retrospective in 1977, and Jimmy Carter invited her to the White House. People couldn’t get enough of her. Why?
Her art was accessible. Her abstraction was never really abstract: you could always see the nature in it: flowers, wind. Her paintings were modern but part of some older tradition too, as close to quilts as to Matisse. In a racially charged era, her art wasn’t political, or at least not overtly so. When asked if she thought of herself as a black artist, she said: “No, I do not. I’m a painter. I’m an American.”

Instead of talking anger, she talked color: “Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” American museums, under the gun after their neglect of black artists, breathed a sigh of thanks. But when Thomas said color what was she really saying? She vividly remembered being barred from museums as a child because of her race. A lifetime later, she acknowledged that things were still hard. “It will take a long time for us to get equality,” she said in an interview. “But what do you expect when whites closed up all the schools and libraries on us for so long? They know that schooling would give us our salvation.”

In many ways she’s an ideal artist, and power of example, for the Obama White House: forward-looking without being radical; post-racial but also race-conscious; in love with new, in touch with old. A genuine rainbow type. She would have enjoyed being in Rothko’s company, and she would have understood where Mr. Ligon was coming from.
Sky Light, 1973

submitted by Steven Kaplan on mon, 2009-10-12 08:32.


About Women and Their Work Gallery

Known for its pioneering spirit, embrace of artistic innovation, and commitment to Texas audiences and artists, Women & Their Work Art Space is a one of a kind statewide non-profit organization. Voted “Best Gallery” numerous times in the Austin Chronicle Readers Poll, Women & Their Work Gallery showcases exhibitions of contemporary art throughout the year and presents performances, readings, film screenings and educational outreach programs.
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