Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 15, 2023
Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful Exh. cat. Columbus, GA, Norfolk, VA, and New Haven, CT: The Columbus Museum and Chrysler Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2021. 336 pp. Cloth $65.00 (9780300258936)
Installation view, Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful, The Columbus Museum, Columbus, Georgia. Photograph provided by the Columbus Museum

There are enough cities in America named after Christopher Columbus that until I arrived in front of The Columbus Museum and saw the banners for the Alma Thomas exhibition, I was worried that I might have traveled to the wrong one. America’s history of brutality, about which the name Columbus whispers or screams depending on who you are, is so vast that it forever spins off little whorls of cruelty like this—another tributary of brutality passed by, soaked in, so one can get somewhere else. On the walk to the museum in what turned out to be the correct Columbus, I passed a sign advertising the same-day “installation” of an ankle tracker—the kind the recently paroled and disproportionately Black are forced to buy in order to extend their incarceration. I also passed the site of an infamous June 1, 1896, lynching of two black men, Jesse Slayton and Will Miles. This event was one of the factors that led the family of a young Alma Thomas to move from Columbus, Georgia, to Washington, D.C., the city with which Thomas’s name would become indelibly associated. Although, as Alma Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful emphasizes about the family’s move away from the American South, and as it cautions about at every such moment that has become iconic of Alma Thomas’s life, it’s complicated.

“It’s complicated” is the unspoken subtitle of this exhibition, curated by Jonathan Frederick Walz at The Columbus Museum and Seth Feman at the Chrysler Museum of Art. “It’s complicated” also captions nearly every instance of Black fame. Black fame of the sort that Thomas gained in her seventies, then lost, then gained again around 2009 when the Obamas hung her painting Sky Light (1973) in the White House. Such fame—the kind Thomas posthumously enjoys now—has seemed almost to demand that the restless extensivity of her life be tied into a set of didactic, decorative knots. Knowability is the goal; a shorthand for Blackness, lest it ever come to look as complicated as it actually is. Whiteness has needed the high wattage contrasts of such iconicity in order to both justify Black fame to itself and to be rewarded for “discovering” it.

Through objects, arrangements, and wall labels, Everything is Beautiful teaches us that these didactic knots—often not just oversimplified, but incorrect—have included: Thomas’s leaving Georgia for Washington D.C. because her family was Black and therefore presumed to be poor; the arrangement of her life, work, and career into clear chronological phases, progressing from the poverty of the rural South to the fame of modernity in the urban North; rigorously framing Thomas’s work as modernist in a way that drowns out Thomas’s own claims to the spiritual; implying that Thomas had to retire from a life of teaching and service before she could ascend to a life of modernist seriousness and autonomy; classifying Thomas as an aspiring Color Field painter; restricting Thomas’s work to terms set by the astringent discourse of modernist painting to the exclusion of her experiments in performance, fashion, puppetry, pedagogy; describing Thomas’s “mature” style as emerging fully formed and out of nowhere upon the invitation of curator David Driskell to exhibit new work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972; and, finally, framing Thomas’s 1972 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art as a Black achievement only and not something that was also born out of an attempt by a flailing institution to redress its whiteness problem (see “What Filters Through the Spaces Between,” Aruna D’Souza’s essay in the excellent catalog, edited by Feman and Walz).

Challenging such an overly simplified story of Thomas’s life, which has allowed institutions to champion Blackness while still containing it, Everything is Beautiful offers correctives to each of these diminutions of Black fame. It accomplishes this through several means: by presenting a far wider range of Thomas’s paintings than is usually shown, including work by her students, paintings that long precede her more famous loosely gridded abstractions from the 1960s onward, and materials related to her interests in puppet theater. There are fifty canvases by Thomas in total, in addition to fifty-nine works on paper and seven sculptures. The exhibition also forces viewers to encounter biographical detail and objects as neither background, nor as strongly or directly explanatory—a forced encounter aided by the proximity of an accompanying, biographical exhibition of objects (only on view in the exhibition’s Columbus stop) from Thomas’s family titled Sand Unshaken: The Origin Story of Alma Thomas (the title refers to, while offering a different reading of, the oft-told story that Thomas’s mother instructed her and her sisters, upon leaving Georgia, to knock the Georgia dust from their shoes forever).

Much of this material is what fine arts exhibitions often call ephemera: books found in Thomas’s home; a reproduction of the dress Thomas wore to her Whitney opening along with one of her iconic housedresses; sculptures for which she did not become famous; her marionettes and sketches for puppet shows; a modernist chair from Thomas’s D.C. home. In the context of this exhibition—and I think this is the guiding proposition—these objects are presented not merely as biographical ephemera but as coextensive with her paintings, themselves coextensive with her life. That means it is an exhibition not just about Alma Thomas’s paintings, but about her biography and the ways that her biography, abetted by her painting, has been made to congeal into a knowable life so that her work becomes legible to those who have been in positions to promote her work. This too is a Black phenomenon, the double consciousness of any exhibition that inherits a history of Black publicity: things have to be undone, unlearned, because the needs that have shaped the life can’t help but be at odds with the life in question.

A few good things happen to the paintings as a result of the exhibition’s refusal to allow the artist’s life to ascend beyond its conditions, its incidents, the details that haven’t fit other people’s purposes. They come to look far less at home inside modernism’s categories of fine or autonomous art and far more restless and multiply indebted; more public than autonomous; more collective than individualist; more Southern than universalist; more spiritual than secular metropolitan; more marked by a long history of Blackness, Black livingness, and anti-Black violence than transcendent of such histories. The exhibition subtly challenges its viewers to invent the terms on and in which Thomas’s work takes up rather than rises above her Black femininity (see Tiffany E. Barber’s essay “In Quiet Pursuit of Art and Life on the Edge” in the catalog). In this sense, the show is about inheritance as a form of beauty; the complex aesthetic claims of inheritance as well as what Patricia Williams calls “the inheritance of a disinheritance that constitutes Black kinship” (Williams, “The Alchemy of Race and Rights”). This is why the lynching, the ankle monitors, the settler’s commemoration in a city name, why all of these whorls of cruelty are both incidental to Thomas’s work and indelible within it. Like so much ordinary American violence, they are incidental in that they forever fail to add up to a transformative event, something that matters lastingly and for the right (which is to say white) people, something that stops the violence rather than just transforming and updating it. They are incidental because they are what it means to live in the middle of things, the ordinariness of violence and the ordinariness of a set of aesthetic experiments that might add up to something without abjuring the incidental or trying to transcend it. This is why it feels so important that Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful speculates, through its expansive materiality, its presentation of Thomas’s famous paintings in the context of the multiple histories that Thomas inherits and actively works, that the incidental can be transformative, can matter, even if it never determines, names, or resolves anything historically. In this atmosphere, Thomas’s “Alma stripes,” those wavering, loosely held grids, offer up an improvisatory history of the incidental. 

Kris Cohen
Jane Neuberger Goodsell Professor of Art History and Humanities, Reed College