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Artist Thornton Dial, an American Genius, Dies at 87

Artist Thornton Dial in an undated photo taken at his home near Bessemer, Alabama (photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation)
Artist Thornton Dial in an undated photo taken at his home near Bessemer, Alabama (photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation)

It has been said that when gods fall, the earth shakes.

Yesterday night, the news broke that the Alabama-based African-American artist Thornton Dial had died on Monday at his home in McCalla, just southeast of Birmingham, at the age of 87. A master of what label-loving art historians and merchants might refer to as post-Cubist assemblage or postmodern appropriation, not to mention of his own variety of unaffected expressionism and a fluid style of draftsmanship that was both lyrical and semi-abstract, Dial was an artist whose ideas and creations fit into all and none of those establishment-dictated categories at the same time. As with the most innovative, most remarkable self-taught artists of any time or place, both his worldview and the evidence of his artistic achievement were and remain unique and, ultimately, unclassifiable.

In an international art world whose mainstream institutions and market celebrate cynicism and superficiality, and are fueled by ego and hype, the bell tolls for Dial today more softly than it should. (Always quick to trumpet the new, banal, high-priced baubles of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, the New York Times offered no obituary this morning — for major cultural figures, such pieces are normally prepared well in advance — although the Associated Press weighed in with a brief report.) However, for those familiar with the accomplishments of this visionary American artist of the 20th and early 21st century period, the tremor they’re feeling upon the news of Dial’s death is one that rocks canonical modern-art history to its very foundation.

Thornton Dial, “Don’t Matter How Raggly The Flag, It Still Got To Tie Us Together” (2003), mattress coils, chicken wire, clothing, can lids, found metal, plastic twine, wire, Splash Zone compound, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood, 71 x 114 x 8 inches, collection of Indianapolis Museum of Art (photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation) (click to enlarge)
Thornton Dial, “Don’t Matter How Raggly The Flag, It Still Got To Tie Us Together” (2003), mattress coils, chicken wire, clothing, can lids, found metal, plastic twine, wire, Splash Zone compound, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood, 71 x 114 x 8 inches, collection of Indianapolis Museum of Art (photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation) (click to enlarge)

Dial was an art-maker who, like Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Louise Bourgeois, and Anselm Kiefer, dared to take on themes that were as big as his technical skills were refined. In his art he examined slavery, racism, the struggle of the oppressed for their rights and freedom, war, the abuse of women, nature’s inexplicable forces — and hope and beauty, too. Its maker experienced many hardships and challenges in his lifetime, from poverty to the ugly, institutionalized racism of his native region, but instead of taking a bitter, cynical turn, Dial’s art was shaped in large part by his abiding faith in the redemptive power of aspiration — of keeping hope alive — and of looking for the unsinkable good in even the darkest episodes of history or the most discouraging expressions of the human spirit.

That might have been because Dial, like many of the most singular autodidacts, made his work primarily for himself, not for any market or public. Dial instinctively aimed for something alien to and bigger than any concern of the established market: truth. Just a few years ago, in early 2011, on the occasion of an exhibition of his work opening at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Dial observed:

All truth is hard truth. We’re in the darkness now and we got to accept the hard truth to bring on the light. You can hide the truth but you can’t get rid of it. When truth come out in the light, we get the beauty of the world.

Thornton Dial, “Lost Cows” (2000-2001), cow skeletons, steel, golf bag, golf ball, mirrors, enamel, and Splash Zone compound, 76.5 x 91 x 52 inches (photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation) (click to enlarge)
Thornton Dial, “Lost Cows” (2000-2001), cow skeletons, steel, golf bag, golf ball, mirrors, enamel, and Splash Zone compound, 76.5 x 91 x 52 inches (photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation) (click to enlarge)

Not to press the point too finely (although because in today’s world so much art product is made not by artists themselves but rather by contracted fabricators, it really cannot be emphasized enough), but Dial was one of those artists who actually made things — that is, with his own two hands. It is impossible to fully appreciate his art without grasping that essential aspect of all of his oeuvre. Then again, Dial’s work proclaims its creator’s technical proficiency, and his sheer delight in the handling of his materials and his discovery of their expressive power, in every twist of a metal rod or splash of paint on a scrap of fabric or thrust of a color-saturated line that gives shape to his mixed-media constructions or pictures on paper.

There was no room in Dial’s aesthetic vision for the rejection — so celebrated by certain theory-driven, too-cool-for-school (or just too schooled?), “professional” modern and contemporary artists — of the visible touch of the art-maker’s hand in their creations. Dial’s art was unabashedly hands-on and heart-full from the start — and deeply rooted in personal experience.

Dial was born in 1928, in west-central Alabama, to a family of sharecroppers who had long eked out a meager living picking cotton. His unwed teenage mother gave her child to relatives to bring up when he was still an infant, and by the age of six, Thornton found himself working in the fields. He was in the third grade when his formal education came to an end. In interviews with the Atlanta-based art historian and collector William S. Arnett, a longtime champion of Dial’s work who founded the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in 2010, the artist recalled:

A midwife delivered me to my mama in a little country house in the field, one of them kind you can lay down and look up through the ceiling and see the sunshine. … We picked cotton when we got big enough to walk. … I was just a little bitty something but I had to earn my way.

In 1941, Dial, who was still a teenager, moved with his half-brother to Bessemer, an industrial city near Birmingham, where, he told Arnett, he was instructed, “Learn to figure out your money and write your name: That’s as far as a Negro can go.”

In Bessemer, Dial did odd jobs — highway construction, brick loading, pipe fitting, house painting — and became an employee of a Pullman railway-carriage factory, where he worked for many years and learned to weld. At home, he used found metal and wood scraps, and other materials to make decorative objects — in effect, the prototypes of what would evolve into his later artworks. Those early concoctions, like all of his art, were steeped in the tradition of African-American “yard art,” which itself was rooted in the African spiritual practice of crafting talismanic objects to protect the home or body. Such piles or agglomerations of rusty machine parts, wire, wood, empty cans, and other repurposed materials are directly linked, formally and thematically, to Dial’s art.

Thornton Dial, “Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle” (2003), plastic soda bottles, doll, clothing, bedding, wire, found metal, rubber glove, turtle shell, artificial flowers, Splash Zone compound, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood, 75 x 112 x 13 inches, collection of Nancy and Tim Grumbacher (photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation) (click to enlarge)
Thornton Dial, “Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle” (2003), plastic soda bottles, doll, clothing, bedding, wire, found metal, rubber glove, turtle shell, artificial flowers, Splash Zone compound, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood, 75 x 112 x 13 inches, collection of Nancy and Tim Grumbacher (photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation) (click to enlarge)

By contrast, as a young man, fresh out of college, Arnett traveled to Europe and briefly lived in England. After taking in the architecture of many European cities and the treasures of their famous museums’ collections — he savored everything from ancient antiquities to modernist masterpieces — Arnett returned to the US, eventually opened a gallery, and then eased into his own independent work as an art researcher. In time, his encounters with the artistic creations of self-taught black artists of the Deep South changed his understanding of what art could be — and express.

Last year, recalling his discovery of the works of such artists in the region as Dial, Lonnie Holley, Joe Minter, Ronald Lockett, Charlie Lucas, Mose Tolliver, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Emmer Sewell, and the quilt makers of the hamlet of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, among many others, Arnett told me, “It was there, in plain sight.” He was referring to “yard art” in particular and to the aesthetic that informed it and all of these artists’ creations in general.

Thornton Dial, “The Last Day of Martin Luther King” (1992), wood, carpet, rope carpet, wire screen, metal pans, broken glass, and broom, 80 x 113.5 x 4.5 inches (photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation) (click to enlarge)
Thornton Dial, “The Last Day of Martin Luther King” (1992), wood, carpet, rope carpet, wire screen, metal pans, broken glass, and broom, 80 x 113.5 x 4.5 inches (photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation) (click to enlarge)

In 1987, Holley introduced Arnett to Dial (who was then 56 years old). Arnett became Dial’s main patron, collected his work in depth, and enthusiastically promoted his talent and vision. But the art establishment was reluctant to make room for an uneducated, black, self-taught artist from rural Alabama in its canon of 20th-century masters and resisted rewarding Dial’s work with the critical attention it deserved. (There is much more to this part of the story, but it is, alas, another complex one, involving various kinds of self-interest, media misrepresentation, and art-market machinations.)

Remembering when he first met Dial, Arnett has remarked, “I knew I was witnessing something great coming out of that turkey coop. … I can’t think of any important artist who has started with less or accomplished more.”

Despite the obstacles, in time Dial’s work did break through, and over the years noteworthy, well-documented exhibitions of his art have been presented at museums and commercial galleries in New York, Houston, Atlanta, Indianapolis, and many other cities. Just a few months ago, Manhattan’s Marianne Boesky Gallery announced that it had taken over representation of Dial’s oeuvre; its first exhibition, of a selection of the artist’s works on paper, ran through mid-December. Most notably, just over a year ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that nearly 60 works of art from the William S. Arnett Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, including 10 of Dial’s, had been donated to the institution, whose curators had played a direct role in choosing them. A selection of works from this donation is scheduled to go on view at the museum later this year.

Thornton Dial, “Freedom Marchers” (1987), wire, steel, tape, wire screen, packing foam, concrete, enamel, and Splash Zone compound, 25.5 x 37.25 x 25.5 inches (photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation) (click to enlarge)
Thornton Dial, “Freedom Marchers” (1987), wire, steel, tape, wire screen, packing foam, concrete, enamel, and Splash Zone compound, 25.5 x 37.25 x 25.5 inches (photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation) (click to enlarge)

There is almost nothing Dial did not use to make his freestanding or wall-mounted constructions, including scraps of old clothes, mattress coils, metal-can lids, plastic twine, wire, epoxy patching compound, enamel, and spray paint.

Several months before the autumn 2005 opening of Thornton Dial in the 21st Century at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, accompanied by Arnett, I visited Dial at his home near Bessemer, to speak with him about his life and art-making, and about the themes of the works he was planning to present in that large exhibition. It was a stressful time for “Mr. Dial,” as everyone referred to the artist, with admiration and respect, for his wife Clara Mae’s health was in decline, and he had just returned home after visiting her in a nearby hospital. (She died in 2005.) After showing me his workspaces — a garage-like structure packed with works in progress, tools, and assorted materials; a patch of hard ground that stretched out in front of it; and even some scraggly bushes adorned with hand-painted odds and ends — the artist led me into his kitchen, where Arnett and two of Dial’s adult children were seated, chatting.

“I want to show you something I just did,” the artist said, handing me a stack of used file folders he had slit in half with his pocketknife to create small, single sheets. “I made these while I was waiting to see Clara Mae. I ran out of paper, so I asked the nurse for something, and this is what she gave me.” (Dial spoke in a thick, rich, local Alabama dialect, which I cannot easily transcribe.)

I looked through the pile of pencil drawings on light-blue and light-green file-folder paper with interest. In them swirled the faces of Dial’s familiar women, the forms of birds, and his proud, emblematic tiger, which in his art serves as a kind of alter ego, as well as a reference to the spirit of the jungle and the combination of perseverance and cunning that African-Americans have long instinctively employed in their struggle to survive in a hostile society. Also among the drawings were several depicting big wiry blobs, complete abstractions that exuded an energy at once ferocious and calm. I asked him: “What do these pictures represent, Mr. Dial? Moses’ burning bush?”

“Could be,” he replied as he examined his handiwork. “Could be. Or maybe they’re just life. They just life.”

If Dial’s work endures — and it will, and in death it is quite likely that appreciation of his achievements will exceed what the artist ever witnessed while he was alive — it will do so not only for the inventiveness and raw creative energy it expresses in every piece. And not just because, as an unfettered expression of one attentive, empathetic black American’s experience, it dares to bear witness and to reach. It will resonate and last because, with not-so-quiet defiance, in an age of exasperation and cynicism, Dial’s art emphatically reaffirms life.

For some people, that’s something that might really shake them up.

Thornton Dial, “The Freedom Side” (2012), wood, metal, clothing, springs, string, wire, plastic, and enamel on canvas on wood, 72 x 72 inches; third panel in a triptych consisting of “Weeping Tree,” “After the Burn” and “The Freedom Side” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
Thornton Dial, “The Freedom Side” (2012), wood, metal, clothing, springs, string, wire, plastic, and enamel on canvas on wood, 72 x 72 inches; third panel in a triptych consisting of “Weeping Tree,” “After the Burn” and “The Freedom Side” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
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