Alma Thomas—Only one more week! at Studio Museum Harlem

July 14 - October 30, 2016

Wind, Sunshine and Flowers, 1968 acrylic on canvas71 3/4 x 51 7/8 in.

Wind, Sunshine and Flowers, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 71 3/4 x 51 7/8 in.

She beguiled me with her rainbows and whispered in my ear, “See how simple it can be?”

So I went to school with Alma and she learned me. I started by trying to figure out how she made her paintings–which stroke came first for example? Did she start in the center of Wind, Sunshine…, with the blues? Or the reds? And then the white curves that are flowers (or drifts of flowers?) surprised me—I hadn’t seen them. Maybe they are the real subject of the painting. So I backed up and thought those curves must have been decided on first and the “spontaneous” strokes are calculated as hell.

Scarlet Sage Dancing a Whirling Dervish, 1976

Scarlet Sage Dancing a Whirling Dervish, 1976

Then I looked at Scarlet Sage… because it seemed easier to figure out but somehow again I thought ‘did you start with the eleven areas of smaller strokes or leave circles to fill them in later and wait– is this all the same color and are each of these strokes just one stroke?’ It became confusing and the dervish did start to whirl around and make the investigation irrelevant.

Scarlet Sage

Scarlet Sage

(As I have asked before, what is abstraction? If Thomas shows us one real thing, like the concentrated energy that is a flower, and she looked so hard and so long before she made this painting, what’s abstract about it? And it certainly isn’t Abstract Expressionism. I’m not saying that it hasn’t been important to find out that the Ab Ex-ers were a larger group and that many people contributed to that dialogue, which continues—and that the paintings were not all monumental in size.

Thomas just doesn’t happen to fit in that historical category, she didn’t influence anyone in it and when she hit her stride, she walked away. The reason this is important is that her observation is directed and directs us to the outside world. It feels like a breath of fresh air now and I do hope and plan to be influenced by her work.)

Cherry Blossom Symphony 69”x54 acrylic on canvas 1973

Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 69 x 54 in.

Without looking at the titles, still caught up in the idea that these paintings were about the surface, still trying to figure out the process and what the underpainting looked like and then realizing that Cherry Blossom.. is an allee and checking it twice—I give up! — for the moment — and just start to enjoy the continuous experimentation, the hidden pictures, the wit and the love.

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On first circuit of the gallery, I didn’t care for this one—it seemed messy, muddy and dark, but from a distance, obliquely—while I was looking at other paintings–the forest floor! And I want it to hang in my house.

Arboretum Presents White Dogwood (1972)

Arboretum Presents White Dogwood, 1972

Do you see?

I was so excited about this one, I forgot to write down its name and can’t find it.

I was so excited about this one, I forgot to write down its name and can’t find it.

It reminded me of a van Gogh:

Garden with Sunflowers

Garden with Sunflowers

The other thing that reminded me of v. Gogh was an insistent theme which runs through the essays and art criticism about Thomas’ work—that she is not a naïve painter—She studied Art! She had a degree! She was influenced by Ab Ex, she knew about old boring Morris Louis, etc.

Naïve has so many meanings: innocent, trusting, unsophisticated, artless, ingenuous, inexperienced, guileless, unworldly, candid….

Alma Thomas and Van Gogh were experienced, sophisticated, artful, calculated—but against all evidence, you know who they trusted?

Us.

 

– CNQ