Alma Thomas, “Apollo 12 “Splash Down”” (1970), acrylic and graphite on canvas, 50 1/4 x 50 1/4 inches (courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY)

We should all be inspired by Alma Thomas’s optimism. She was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891, but wasn’t able to devote herself to painting until 1960, when she retired from teaching at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C. She was sixty-nine, and had a wealth of experience upon which to build, but this is never a guarantee. Thomas defied the odds. She was born in the Deep South when segregation was the law of the land. Racial violence and the prospect of a better education impelled her family to move to Washington in 1906, where she lived in the same house until she died in 1978. Although she painted throughout her life and made her first abstract painting in 1959, for all intents and purposes her career lasted less than two decades.

It’s a career is marked by Thomas’s independence. In 1924, she was the first graduate of Howard University’s new fine-arts department. She was part of “The Little Paris Group” of artists, which had been started by Lois Mailou Jones, a well-known painter and textile designer who taught painting at Howard. This group of African American artists, which also counted Delilah Pierce as a member, met regularly to work from the model as well as talk about the latest developments in modern art, particularly as it was centered in Paris, where Jones had studied in 1937 and visited yearly except during World War II. So while Thomas has often been associated with the Washington Color School, which developed from Color Field painting and was equally committed to chromatic abstraction, she understandably doesn’t fit comfortably into that grouping.

Alma Thomas, “Arboretum Presents White Dogwood” (1972), acrylic on canvas, 67 7/8 x 54 7/8 inches (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum; Bequest of the artist) (click to enlarge)

Rather, Thomas developed a relatively flexible style by the mid-1960s, in which she owed no debts to her influences. Currently, there is a small, thoughtful exhibition, Alma Thomas, at the Studio Museum in Harlem (July 14 – October 30, 2016), curated by Ian Berry, Dayton Director of the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, and Lauren Haynes, Associate Curator, Permanent Collection, at the Studio Museum. While there is not a lot of work in the exhibition, there are enough examples of the different phases of her painting, as well as rarely exhibited watercolors and drawings from her sketchbooks, to both satisfy you and whet your appetite for more.

The exhibition is divided into four phases: Move to Abstraction; Earth; Space: Mosaic. In the last three phases we see her signature style, which consists of short blunt brushstroke, usually arranged vertically to form a stripe or irregular geometric shapes of saturated color, which are arranged to suggest movement. Flowers and the breezes blowing through is a recurring subject. In an interview with H.E. Mahal, which was published in 1970, Thomas said:

The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me. Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.

This is how Lowery Stokes Sims, former Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, framed Thomas’ statement in an essay she wrote in 2001:

Thomas’ adoption of abstraction also begs the question of whether African American artists are obliged to confront contemporary political issues. African American artists who worked in abstract modes during the 1960s and 1970s were saddled with the epithet “mainstream” as opposed to the more politically correct “blackstream” artists who engaged polemical black subject matter in their work.

Alma Thomas, “Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset” (1970), acrylic on canvas, 47 7/8 x 47 7/8 inches (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Whether we will admit it or not, the question of an artist’s freedom is taken for granted by some, while others have to earn it, whether they want to or not. The imbalance of that situation says more about the art world than about Thomas, whose paintings should be seen for what they are: beautiful celebrations of color, light, and movement, which the artist occasionally infused with a gentle humor, as in the painting, “Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset” (1970). Made after Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, Thomas’ painting imagines the view of the earth that Charlie Brown’s beloved beagle Snoopy sees from outer space. This is how Thomas saw it:

I was born at the end of the 19th century, horse and buggy days, and experienced the phenomenal changes of the 20th-century machine and space age.

Thomas was interested chromatic compositions, but she didn’t pursue pure opticality or flatness. She initiated understated interactions between figure and ground that get us to look and look again. She made abstract paintings, but she didn’t drive out her experience of flowers, her imaginings of something she could not actually see, or her belief in technological progress. The largely red circle that takes up most of the orange ground in “Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset” is made of vertical brushstrokes fitted inside a vertical stripe. Most of the stripes are red, with a yellow one dividing them from the orange ones on the right. The stripes are traced in pencil on a white ground. Thomas patiently aligned her relatively short vertical brushstrokes within each stripe; she felt her way through the paint, saturated patch by saturated patch. A fiery circle floats in an orange field, buoyant and joyful. She was both counting time and celebrating its passage, in part because of all the changes she had witnessed in her lifetime.

Alma Thomas, “Cherry Blossom Symphony” (1973), acrylic on canvas, 69 x 54 inches, collection Halley K Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York

In “Cherry Blossom Symphony” (1973), Thomas painted vertical bubblegum-pink brushstrokes on a ground that shifts from blue-black to blue-green to yellow-green to blue-black and blue-green again. She varied the viscosity of the paint as well as the length of brushstroke. Her decisions were intuitive. Not only does the pink subtly change throughout the painting, with faint hints of the ground peeking through, but the irregular field of horizontal strokes also shifts tonally across the width of the canvas. It is as if a dusky pink curtain is undulating across the painting’s surface. The combination of delicacy, directness, and structure attains a visual power not to be missed. The subtleness Thomas achieves is unrivaled. She makes many of her Washington, D.C., contemporaries look heavy-handed. I look forward to the day that I can see all of her paintings of cherry blossoms in one exhibition.

Alma Thomas continues at the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 W 125th Street, Harlem, Manhattan) through October 30.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...