Alma Thomas’s career is as unlikely as any in 20th-century America, and at the same time utterly reasonable. Unlikely: after working as a junior high school art teacher for 35 years, she began a career as a painter at nearly 70, and in the course of her remaining two decades made extraordinary work that won widespread acclaim despite its maker being not male, not white, and not in New York. Reasonable: Thomas spent a lifetime preparing for that outcome via formal education and artistic alliances, as well as through wide reading, looking, and travel. She set aside the option of wife and mother, assessing it as incompatible with her artistic commitment. The Washington, DC, art world and, even after her retirement from teaching, the city’s children provided a vital source of energy and support.

Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891 to a middle-class family; her father was a businessman and her mother a dressmaker and designer. The Thomases moved to Washington in 1906 because of racial violence in Georgia and for the education of their four children. Their house at 1530 15th Street NW would be Thomas’s home for most of her life; its kitchen and living room would eventually double as her studio space. Following high school, Thomas earned a teaching degree and worked for six years at a settlement house in Wilmington, Delaware. In 1924, at the age of 32, she became the first graduate of the fine-arts department at Howard University, having enrolled at the invitation of the department’s founding professor, James Herring. In 1925 she began teaching art at Shaw Junior High School in northwest Washington, where she would work until 1960. While teaching, Thomas earned further degrees in education at Columbia and New York University, but also continued to study painting at American University and to play key roles in Washington art spaces such as the Barnett Aden Gallery, a pioneering venue for contemporary art. Long before her own work took priority for her, she was well-known as an effective organizer, astute critic, and generous mentor.

For women of any background, the achievement of recognition late in life (and more fully only after one’s death) was a fairly common reality during most of the 20th century. In Thomas’s case, MoMA plays its part in this storyline: her art was not exhibited or acquired here until 2015. That year, two works from different moments of her career entered the collection: a collaged watercolor study from the late 1960s and an acrylic painting of 1973.

The untitled collage, while made as a study for a painting, is a remarkable work in its own right. It was one of a set of studies shown for the first time at Washington’s Hemphill Fine Arts gallery in 2014, in an exhibition that offered a revelatory look at Thomas’s working process and its foundation in watercolor on paper. Although this work seems not to correlate with a specific painting, it immediately conveys its status as a working document. It is composed of several overlapping sheets of thick paper placed side by side to form a long horizontal surface. Each sheet features several vertical columns of mosaiclike daubs of pure color. The palette is a spectrum of many different blues, greens, and yellows as well as purple, orange, and red, all intuitively rather than systematically distributed. Small bits of masking tape dot the surface, and an abundance of metal staples adds a silver zing to the painted paper. Because the sheets are not trimmed exactly straight at top and bottom, the drawing’s horizontal edges have a supple ripple.

Vibrant micro-units of color had become Thomas’s signature in 1966, an epiphanic development prompted by the offer of a solo show at the Howard University Gallery of Art. The invitation followed a two-year hiatus from painting imposed by severe arthritis, and Thomas seized the opportunity for a fresh start. Among her inspirations were the painted-paper cutouts of Henri Matisse’s final years, which served as powerful examples of a late-in-life breakthrough. Thomas switched from oil to acrylic paints, pleased that acrylic behaved with the soft fluidity she loved in watercolor. She devised an approach that built a composition through individual tiles of color, usually arrayed in columns or concentric circles with ample white space visible between them. The units, while roughly rectangular, are more organic than geometric in spirit. As this drawing shows, they vary considerably in character throughout a given work: they have different shapes and sizes, directionalities, and degrees of finish. Like the natural world that so profoundly inspired Thomas, the lively composition is filled with air, light, and motion.

Fiery Sunset, a painting from about five years later, featured in Thomas’s exhibition at New York’s Martha Jackson Gallery in the autumn of 1973. The paintings in that show introduced a new chapter in her work, following two acclaimed solo exhibitions at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1972. In Thomas’s own abstract language of strokes of color, Fiery Sunset conveys the intensity of a dramatic evening sky. The four vertical sections of the surface blend to read as one allover composition. As in all the works of that moment, Thomas has reduced her palette from the wide range found in the 1960s paintings to a few specific colors. Here she presents a dialogue between a ground of orange-red and the rich blue-purple units of color upon it. Less tilelike than the colorful tesserae of the previous five years, the blue is applied in frisky irregular strokes that seem to dance across the surface in every direction. The freedom of the blue units and the four-column structure of the composition engage in a productive tension. Gradually loosening from left to right, the composition both recognizes and defies its own internal and external borders. That dualism serves as an apt metaphor for Thomas’s artistic career.

Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)

Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture

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