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"Resurrection" by Alma Thomas

Excerpted from Art in the White House by William Kloss

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Alma Thomas (1891–1978)

Resurrection 1966

Signed and dated lower right: AW Thomas / ’66

Signed and dated on reverse: Alma W Thomas / 1530 15th St NW / (Acrylic) Resurrection / ’66

Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 36 x 363/16 inches (91.4 x 91.9 cm)

Gift of the George B. Hartzog Jr. White House Acquisition Trust, 2014

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Alma Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, September 22, 1891. Her family later moved to Washington, D.C., where in 1924 she became the first graduate of the new art department at Howard University. She spent thirty-five years teaching art to children in a Washington junior high school. During that time she earned a masters degree (1934) from Teachers College of Columbia University. In those years she painted in a representational style. She later recalled, “I wasn’t happy with that, ever.” It was not until the 1950s, when she studied painting at American University with the distinguished artist Jacob Kainen, that she became drawn toward abstraction with an emphasis on color.

Coincidentally, in 1952–53 a few Washington artists were introduced to painting abstract shapes of pure color on unprimed canvas, which absorbed the brushed or poured paint. With associated artists they became known as the Washington Color School. There were friendships and mutual admiration between Alma Thomas and these younger artists, but she developed mostly apart from their influence. She always primed her canvas and always used a brush.

The discovery of her own path happened after a severe arthritic attack in 1964 threatened her mobility and her ability to paint at all. Just at that point she was offered a retrospective of her art at Howard University. She said, “I’ll try.” She recovered her health and began her career anew as an abstract painter. Resurrection was made in 1966, the year of her retirement and her retrospective, and, inspired by the freedom to paint and the growing recognition she received, she made some new paintings, “Different from anything I’d ever done. Different from anything I’d ever seen. I thought to myself, that must be accomplished.” She was 74.

She became known for paintings that were based on observing nature in changing light, which although sounding like an impressionist approach was in fact far from plein air painting. She painted in her living room / studio, organizing the smaller patterns in nature seen framed and sunlit and moving through her window. Sometimes the patterns were the leaves of trees, for instance a large holly tree whose distinctive leaves held her attention. Patterns became her method of organizing colors and building a composition. Patterns are also the source of energy, since the interlinked pattern-blocks vibrate optically. Because of that her paintings are reminiscent of mosaics and their reflective irregular pieces of glass.

Resurrection is painted on a square canvas composed of concentric but irregular circles of vivid color. The circles are formed of pattern-blocks of color painted on a bright white ground that underlies everything. The glowing yellow area first seem at the edges of the white canvas to begin outside the painting. That impression and skillful handling of the nested circles of color magnify the painting’s size and expressive power.

Resurrection is a joyous painting exemplifying the expressive glow of the color abstractions of Alma Thomas. It may be her earliest painting built upon concentric circles. Obviously this design is especially focused and intense. These paintings have often casually been dubbed “targets.” But they are not aimed at nor shot at. They ought better be called sunbursts—the energy comes from them.

I do not know of any other paintings that she named with a with religious reference. I think that this title makes plain her own emergence as a full-time, independent, and radically changed artist. Her aesthetic conversion to abstract painting should be recognized as a momentous decision.

The scope of Alma Thomas’s art is not touched on here. She painted in many colors, sizes, and compositions. Her “subjects” or chosen motifs were carefully selected and her expressive range was great. In her late, short career in color abstraction she was given sixteen solo exhibitions including one at the Whitney Museum in New York (1972), and received critical praise. This African-American woman, artist, and teacher made her lasting mark on American art. “That” had been accomplished.