Political and abstract art meet in Alma Thomas Exhibit

PHOTO BY TSEMONE OGBEMI ‘21| CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER  The Smith College Museum of Art highlights Alma Thomas and her contemporaries in an exhibit on art from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.


The Smith College Museum of Art highlights Alma Thomas and her contemporaries in an exhibit on art from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

Jacqueline Richardson ’21 | Assistant Arts Editor

Currently on display at the Smith College Museum of Art is Alma Thomas: The Light of the Whole Universe, comprising art from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s by Alana Thomas and her contemporaries.

That period of time was a kind of historical boiling point. Feminist and civil rights movements swept across the US as anti-colonial movements began all over the world. But while citizens and activists around the world felt compelled to act towards a similar goal in liberation, the artists of this time — at least those represented by the slice of this exhibit — had a more mixed reaction to the status of their world. Some, like Thomas herself, chose to refract their subjects through an abstract style. Others elected a more pointedly political approach. All the represented artists shared a drive to portray, celebrate and interrogate a fast-changing modern world.

Alma Woodsey Thomas was born the eldest child to John Harris Thomas, a business man, and Amelia Cantey Thomas, a seamstress, in Columbus, Ga. on Sept. 22, 1891 — a time she would describe during her life as an artist in the ’60s and ’70s  as “horse-and-buggy days.” She demonstrated an artistic streak as a child and young woman and eventually became the first person to earn a degree in fine arts from Howard University.

Although she studied art and painted for most of her life, it wasn’t until 1960, when she retired from her 38-year career as an art teacher, that her career as an artist would take off. It was for her first retrospective at Howard in 1966 that Thomas created her acclaimed Earth Paintings, which were inspired by the shifting patterns of light cast through the trees outside her window. Thomas found further inspiration from the moon landing in 1969. In 1972, she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and her work continues to be displayed in many prestigious museums of this kind. She died in 1978.

“Morning in the Bowl of Night,” which acts as the centerpiece of the exhibit, was painted when she was 82. The painting’s pattern — night-blue shards nearly completely covering a rosy-pink background — resembles a triptych, a pattern that repeats in other pieces in the gallery.

Sam Gilligan lines up three of his paintings, all brightly colored with lines suggesting a comb run through the wet paint, in a triptych pattern; James Hiroshi Suzuki employs a triptych for his painting “Where Are We Going?” His softly geometric, shimmering pastels recall Thomas’s own. A standout among the more abstract pieces — most of which were carefully and deliberately colored and shaped — was Ad Reinhardt’s “Triptych,” a slab of black in the back of the exhibit whose accompanying explanation for his abstaining from color was both baffling and enlightening.

Among the pieces, too, are the more overtly political. Wadsworth Jarrell’s “Revolutionary” and Charles White’s “Love Letter #1” both portray Angela Davis. Wadsworth employs hot, bright colors and motion in his celebratory portrait, whereas White’s “Love Letter #1,” painted in response to Davis’s arrest in 1970, portrays her troubles in grayscale.

Some art in the exhibit also explores environmentalism. On the ground of the exhibit, Mishima Kimiyo’s “Sunkist Lemon Box” sits soggy-looking and gray, as though plucked from an alleyway and placed in the gallery; John Chamberlain’s “Homer” is a fist made from tin cans used once before being discarded. Though more abstract than the former pieces, Helen Frankenthaler’s 1974 piece “Just Before” employs a shade of green that could described either as a primordial swamp or a pollutant.

As Frankenthaler’s painting suggests, the divide between the abstract and realistic in the exhibit isn’t so clean. The more abstract pieces do work to defamiliarize the world we take for granted, and the more political pieces abstracted people and concepts seen only in certain simplistic lights. The exhibit will be in the Smith College Museum of Art until Dec. 31, 2019.