Dial World, Part I: The Tiger That Flew over New York City welcomes viewers with the titular painting from 1990, hung in the lobby of David Lewis. Inspired by his first trip to NYC from Alabama, Thornton Dial centers tall, white skyscrapers, towering above brown tenement houses that house the working-classes. Flying over the scene is a white tiger with black marks, a symbol for Dial himself, gliding over the city like an airplane-esque wild cat. Rife with allusions to strength, movement, and the wilderness, the tiger is a guiding motif throughout the exhibit. 

The exhibition displays seven other mixed media paintings, all created between 1993 and 2011, featuring materials such as fabric, enamel, spray paint, twine, and in one work, an animal jawbone. For “In the Making of Our Oldest Things” (2009), Dial gathered floral-patterned fabric and primary colored enamel on a wooden panel, forming a work that recalls abstract expressionism. All of the paintings are deeply textured — imbuing the paintings with sculptural qualities and revealing Dial’s process of layering materials on his canvases. 

Thornton Dial, “Meat” (2003), tin, cloth, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood 72 1/2 x 97 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches

Embodiment, possibly of a tiger, is alluded to in “Meat” (2003) and “Bone Dry” (2011). The former signals the fleshiness of a living being —- either human or non-human —- with carnal pinks and reds, while the latter contains criss-crossed wooden slabs on the canvas, and the aforementioned jawbone. Both works utilize richly colored and energetic brushstrokes and designs, gesturing towards Dial’s experimentation with representing a tiger. “All the Cats in Town” (1993), on the other hand, emphasizes the body; four abstracted wild cats are entangled on the canvas. Painted in vibrant colors, the “cats” nod to jazz slang, adding a musical element to the rhythmic brushstrokes.

Traditional art history often categorizes artists like Dial as self-taught, outsider, folk, and vernacular. Carrying the vestiges of the outdated “primitive,” these identificatory terms inadequately capture the aesthetic significance of Black artists from the US South. Dial’s artistic process is bricolage, evidenced through his practice of assemblage with a vast array of found materials. To be a bricoleur, working in assemblage, is to be rooted in a Southern African-American aesthetic practice, though a rich tradition of this work also emerged in California in the 1950s.

With very little didactic material, the exhibition emphasizes the form and materiality of the paintings more so than any context that surrounds them. Whether this focus encourages viewers to further consider or ultimately ignore the rich history of African-American assemblage, and Thornton’s role in it, is debatable. At times, the show does feel like a missed opportunity to engage the particular contributions of Black Southerners to contemporary art.

Dial, who died in 2016, did not achieve international acclaim for his artwork until later in life, despite having been raised in a community surrounded by artists, most notably the Gee’s Bend quilters. Still, the art world has been slow to reckon with the skilled contributions of these artists in the global canon of abstraction. 

Installation view of Dial World, Part II: Stars of Everything, David Lewis

Dial World, Part II: Stars of Everything, now on view at the gallery’s new location on 12th street, seeks to remedy this exclusion by placing Dial at the center of a curatorial dialogue on assemblage and abstraction. The exhibition includes works by Pope. L, Robert Rauschenberg, Myrlande Constant, and several others working with shared formal strategies in disparate cultural contexts. Taken together, the shows offer an exciting, if selective, opportunity to gauge Dial’s formal impact. Hopefully they won’t be the last to explore his rich artistic world. 

Dial World, Parts I and II continue through December 20 at David Lewis (88 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan and West 12th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan, respectively).

Alexandra M. Thomas is a PhD student in History of Art, African American Studies, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. Her research interests include: global modern and contemporary...