It’s that time again where we reach back into our collective history and highlight the influence and accomplishments of Black Americans. This time around I’d like to focus on the woman who, for all her accolades, is sorely underreported on; Alma Woodsey Thomas.

I first came upon Thomas’s work in an article discussing the art on view in the Obama White House and again in the list of artist featured in the new Whitney’s first show America is Hard to See. Her vivid, bold paintings immediately stood out to me for their masterful use of color and interesting brushstroke. I came to find she had a devout following among collectors and institutions of her hometown Washington D.C. but for some reason she is absent from the larger art historical canon.

Alma Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1891. She received her education in Washington D.C. after her family moved to escape racial violence. Thomas enrolled at Howard University as a home economics major but graduated as part of the first class of Fine Art students in 1924. From the mid 20’s to the early 60’s she worked as an art educator teaching at the junior high level in segregated city schools. In 1960 Alma retired from teaching, received her MFA and began to paint full time. This is when she came into her mature abstract style. The bright dabs of color that cover her large canvases have been categorized as abstract expressionism and color field painting though they don’t neatly fit into either category. She does share some similarities with the regional Washington Color School in her use of color theory and form, but as a whole her stripes and cobblestones are all her own. In 1972 at the age of 80 she was the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American art, the show was considered a triumph.

What really stood out to me about her work after a bit of research wasn’t the form or stroke but her commitment to abstraction in a politically volatile time. Alma’s lifetime spanned a tremendous amount of social upheaval, two world wars, women’s suffrage, the civil rights and black power movements as well as first wave feminism. Though it’s true that she was an artist and a black woman, she did not consider herself a maker of Black Art. [The Black Art Movement was the “spiritual sister” of the Black Power Movement urging African Americans to radicalize and reconnect with their cultural roots.] Stylistically speaking Alma was closer to the tradition of modernism using form and color to elicit a human response that was not necessarily colored by issues of race or gender. “I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness,” said Alma in a 1970 interview, “rather than man’s inhumanity to man.” Her abstractions were based on her life experiences from the light in her home hollytree to the dazzling future of space travel.

On the one hand, her apolitical stance could be said to have sanitized her work making her more appealing to the mainstream art world. While it is true that the museums in the 1960’s and 70’s were not particularly open to showing politically charged work, this also wasn’t a common place to find many women, especially women of color. Black abstractionists were in a double blind situation; they didn’t represent blackness, but were also not integrated into the mainstream and were considered copycats by many critics and curators. By focusing outside of cultural critique, Alma was inadvertently making a statement about black consciousness saying black people could be more than their differences. I think this is particularly powerful even today speaking about the work that women or minorities can and do create, we are all more than our categorical distinctions and should be free to experiment and explore in our practice as we see fit.

Alma Thomas passed away in 1978 at the age of 86. Since her death her work has been shown in a number of retrospectives including one opening this month at the Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs, NY. I would encourage everybody to see her there or as the exhibition travels to the Studio Museum in Harlem this July.

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