“Thirteen Studies for Paintings,” at Hemphill Gallery through Dec. 20, is a show that changes assumptions.
Although Alma Thomas (1891-1978) has been considered an intuitive artist, these preparatory pieces for her large-scale abstract works offer evidence to the contrary. They indicate instead the thoughtful and deliberate process of this mid-20th-century African American painter.
“The work in our show reveals aspects of her thinking and strategy that have not been clearly exemplified in the past,” said George Hemphill, owner and founder of the contemporary art gallery that bears his name. “This is the important and distinguishing aspect of the exhibition.”
“Thomas made both watercolor and acrylic studies, sometimes as many as 20, before painting a canvas,” said Dr. David C. Hart, the Cleveland Institute of Art associate professor who inherited the Thomas studies from his uncle, the painter’s friend and student, and collaborated with Hemphill on the exhibit.
The show, Hart said, “invites us to better know those larger works by seeing their lineage. These visually striking studies offer insight into the range of her formal experiments and provide an occasion to appreciate the fineness and clarity of her process.”
Notations, made on papers that are taped or pinned together on many of the studies, prove that the artist planned her paintings in terms of color, rhythm and pattern, Hemphill noted.
Prior to being recognized as a professional artist, Thomas, who had a bachelor of science from Howard University, its first fine-art program graduate, and a master’s in art education from Columbia University, taught art at D.C.’s Shaw Junior High School for 35 years. After retiring in 1960, she studied painting at American University. According to Hemphill, Thomas’ “primary effort came after the heyday of abstract expressionism and sat alongside the Washington Color School. But there is a distinct difference in her work from that of the Color Field painters, particularly in how she saw color and how she used abstraction as a metaphor.”
“She thrived in an art world that commonly excluded both African-Americans and women,” Hart observed. Thomas was the first African-American female artist to have a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1972.
Since her death, Hemphill said, Thomas’ “significant contribution” has been increasingly recognized. “Many institutions failed to acquire her work as well as that of other mid-20th-century African-American artists when it was being created. … Now [I] suppose they are playing catch-up.”
Not so for Hemphill, who said, being able to mount the show required “attaining a certain position in the art world and most importantly, the good fortune to be presented with the opportunity. Accumulating enough available Alma Thomas work for an exhibition is very difficult.”
He said his gallery has included Thomas’ work “in previous shows that were thematic in nature. And we have had the good fortune to work with more than a few Thomas paintings throughout the history of the gallery.”
The works in the show, says Hemphill, range in price from $12,000 to $68,000. “We provide prices upon request so that the experience of the show is not distracted by money values,” he said, noting that Thomas paintings cost between $75,000 and $400,000.
Among the noteworthy local institutions that include Thomas paintings in their collections are the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Phillips Collection and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. “Sky Light,” on loan from the Hirshhorn, now hangs in the Obama family’s private quarters at the White House.
— Ellyn Wexler
Ellyn Wexler is a freelance writer living in Gaithersburg.