“Just look at me now.”
On the 28th of August 1963 African American artist Alma Thomas was amongst the quarter of a million people in front of the Lincoln Memorial who heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his immortal words "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
It is a sentiment that no doubt struck a chord with Thomas who was reported as saying by Ann Gibson in her essay Putting Alma Thomas in Place, “When I was a little girl in Columbus there were things we could do and things we couldn’t. One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there.”
At the age of 71 and nine years after the King speech, Thomas became the first African American female artist to have a solo exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art, an occasion that caused her to remark, “My how things have changed.”
Although not overtly political Thomas was mindful of the times in which she lived. As a teacher for most of her life, Thomas was in her early 60’s when she took up painting full time, she was acutely aware of the importance of education. As she has said “If you are ignorant you are helpless…But what do you expect when whites closed up all the schools and libraries on us for so long? They know that schooling would give us salvation.”
But being an abstractionist with an interest in color field painting and minimalism Thomas was disinclined to mix politics with her art. As she said at the time of her Whitney exhibition “Negros have now made their political statement about their problems in the art world. Now it’s time they get down to work and produce an art they can be really proud of.”
And about her work she has 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.”
It was the study of Matisse’s work, in particular his later cut outs, that inspired Thomas’ abstractionist quest, for as she has been reported as saying “If an old crippled-up man can do that, I can do it.” And do it she did in both a social and aesthetic manner that still resonates today almost 50 years after her death.
The exhibition Alma Thomas: Moving Heaven & Earth, Paintings and Works on Paper, 1958 - 1978 is currently on show at New York’s Michael Rosenfeld Gallery until the 16th of May.