Alma Thomas: The Woman Who Saw The Future and Painted It

On the launch of our Mars and Slate color collection—an homage to the late expressionist painter Alma Thomas—curator and art world heavyweight, Chaédria LaBouvier unpacks Thomas’s inspiring color theory and the complicated history behind “firsts” for Black creatives.
Alma Thomas: The Woman Who Saw The Future and Painted It

On the launch of our Mars and Slate color collection—an homage to the late expressionist painter Alma Thomas—curator and art world heavyweight, Chaédria LaBouvier unpacks Thomas’s inspiring color theory and the complicated history behind “firsts” for Black creatives.

It is nothing but befitting that the launch of our latest BODYTALK series, BODY OF IDEAS, coincides with that of our new color collection, Mars and Slate. Like our new palette, an earthy take on sensual but omnipresent tones, BODY OF IDEAS works to push back on the tried and true expectations of lingerie

Just as we reimagined a red bra here, we’re conceptualizing a new hub for cultural commentary that encourages some of the most brilliant female minds within our CUUP community to share their perspectives on the happenings of the day. The results? We hope exciting, boundary-pushing articles that make us rethink the foundational pieces we put on every morning and the way we look at the world. Which is actually quite like the source of our collection’s inspiration--the art of expressionist painter Alma Thomas

Her exciting grasp of color theory and play on modernity encouraged the eye to revel in the joyous tones of nature and beyond, and as curator and art world heavyweight, Chaédria LaBouvier explains, Thomas was nothing short of a world maker. But, talk of Thomas’s work has also fallen subject to the complicated and problematic designation of “firsts”--a pre-fix often attached to the work of Black creatives who broke through the systems of racism to achieve success.

Read on to learn more and stay tuned for more BODY OF IDEAS.

In 1972, ahead of her landmark solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum, Alma Thomas was asked to describe the "most important element" in her work. Her answer was simple. "A world without color would seem dead. Color is life." The latest CUUP collection is inspired by Thomas’s love of color, both as a material, instrument, subject, and portal in her works. Red figures prominently in Thomas’s work throughout her oeuvre, from early works like Etude in Brown (Saint Cecilia at the Organ), which is an abstract study in red browns to her famous later works such as Eclipse, Deep Red Roses Chant, and Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music (1976). It’s no surprise that red figures prominently in the collection. Red’s significance includes love, anger, war, fire, and holiness (think the cardinal’s robes in the Catholic church). Above all of these things, red is an amplifier of emotions or sentiment, almost like an exclamation mark in a painting. (Like how Rothko used it.) This was softly but brightly and pointedly in Alma Thomas’s schools of style, namely Expressionism, a branch of abstract art that places great importance on portraying the world through the artists’ feelings to invoke feeling from the audience. 

So often, Thomas’s work is read through a lens of flowers, the cherry blossoms of D.C. where she came of age and subjects considered to be “women’s matters.” And her work indeed returns to those as the protagonist in her paintings. But, her work is urgently concerned with the space age, science (plants are fractal by nature), and progress on all fronts, and it is on her canvas where they all meet: “…​The heavens and stars and my idea of what it is like to be an astronaut, exploring space.” Which is to say, modernity. In Alma Thomas’s work, I see urgent modernity, pressing for a world that doesn’t yet exist. In her hand, bright colors that might convey a harshness become inviting and warm, inviting one to imagine what this other world might be. In Thomas’s work, modernity is soft. In fact, it must be. 

Interestingly, her work is not considered a visual foundation of Afro-Futurism; her wonder of science, the space age, planets, the moon, and astronauts are inextricable from her canvas. Mars Dust, painted in 1972, imagines the Red Planet’s topography, long before the first NASA rover (named Sojourner) landed in 1997. Like the abolitionist Sojourner Truth and certainly the author Octavia Butler, a mother of Afro-Futurism, Alma Thomas imagined other worlds before science and society could completely get there. Inspired by images of Martian dust storms taken by the NASA Marnier 9 satellite, the cool, slate blues and greys of Mars Dust (1972) peek through the dominant layer of red. The texture, color, and depth of the acrylic paint create dense and opaque dabs, further highlighting that there is an entire painting underneath. The dabs – which reference or foreshadow Blast Off (1970) or Deep Rose Chant (1972) – recall early, analog TV display resolution pixels that often looked liked color grids layering one another. This visual parallel isn’t surprising; TV was her portal to watching the significant technological advances like the Apollo 12 landing, intergalactic dust storms, and man landing on the moon for the first time. It would make sense that pixel-like dabs became an instrument, layers, and portals to other worlds. 

The technique used to make many of her most famous works, including Mars Dust, is known as pentimento, but Thomas made it her own. Instead of alluding to a layer or painting underneath, the artist made its obfuscation a part of the painting, compositionally and chromatically. What she reveals (or doesn’t) becomes the question, and sometimes, when a painter is very good, the question becomes the subject of the painting. If silence can be louder than words, the question can be more powerful than the answer, and I think that’s really what Thomas was getting to in her work: the power to suggest, to question, to refuse, to obscure in an effort to see something totally. 

This brings me to the conversation of firsts," and what we think that they mean. Thomas was the first graduate of Howard University’s art department, the first art department at a historically Black college or university (HBCU). And in 1972, at the age of 77, Thomas became the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum, which for some meant she was also one of the first Black women to be considered a “major” artist by the museum, auction and gallery systems, despite having been largely ignored by them during her lifetime. (Thomas died in 1976.) 

When her 1966 work, Resurrection, was selected by the Obamas to be added to the White House Collection, Thomas became the first African-American/Black woman artist to have her work hung in the White House and added to its permanent collection. This deserves quotations, as that designation is completely – and subjectively – decided by the whims of  White gatekeepers, who over history have always selectively granted access to a few Black people who pass a series of invisible tests. These tests are everything from "cultural fit" to having to be over-qualified “Firstsare surely real, but they are figments of the White imagination, as it insinuates that Black person is the first one to ever be good enough for the job or honorific. I should know; I am the first Black curator, the first Black woman, the first curator of Cuban descent in the Guggenheim’s 80-year history. I am also the first Black author of a catalog and the youngest independent curator to helm an exhibition, Basquiat's Defacement: The Untold Story, which is considered foundational scholarship in the understanding of Jean-Michel Basquiat's work. These facts have almost nothing to do with me or Black people; it would be ludicrous to suggest that I was the first Black person ever to want to helm an exhibition there. The logic that Alma Thomas is the first Black woman to create work worthy of institutional support or a prominent place in the White House is untenable. Firstshave everything to do with the rationing of opportunity, and one cannot divorce that reality from the abundance of genius and rigor in Alma Thomas’s work and that the reception that she had long deserved came four years before her death. Black art – the narratives, collecting, selling, and creation – is fashionable right now --, as evidenced by the collection -- but for whom? And how do we reconcile that for some, as artists like Thomas have always held the center?

What is more interesting than Thomas’s firsts, which require us to examine it through a (White) gaze that did not belong to her, is to see where her gaze did take her. It was often attuned to the stars, outer worlds, and worlds that did not yet exist. Thomas’s work asks the audience with clarity and self-possession to consider that sometimes the question is the answer. And that modernity must have urgency, imagination, and a tenable truth held by an unbreakable softness. Without it, we lack the tools, the sensitivity, and vision to see all that’s underneath, which might be the whole point of it all. 

Tags: Body of Ideas

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Alma Thomas: The Woman Who Saw The Future and Painted It

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Comments

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In the past 12 months, I both saw an Alma Thomas painting for the first time and started shopping CUUP. I never would have imagined these two things would coincide. And I can’t recall seeing a brand I love talk about an artist I love. Thank you for publishing this piece and being more color to my closet and my imagination.

Kamilah Patterson

Feb 2021


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