50 Years Ago, Alma Thomas Made ‘Space’ Paintings that Imagined the Moon and Mars

 

WHEN APOLLO 11 LANDED on the moon, Alma Thomas was inspired by the historic milestone. The mission was launched 50 years ago today and Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., and Michael Collins landed on the moon four days later, July 20, 1969.

The American astronauts were the first people to visit the moon and Armstrong was the first to walk the surface. His famous words were broadcast back to Earth: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

 

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ALMA THOMAS, “Apollo 12 Splash Down,” 1970 (acrylic and graphite on canvas). | Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York. Courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem

 

They were exploring a new frontier 240,000 miles away and the rest of the world could only imagine the experience, but had some insight because of the images shown on television. Thomas was among the fascinated and channeled her interest into her work. She began to make Space paintings, works that imagined what the astronauts saw, views of the Earth’s surface from outer space, and Apollo’s water landings.

“I was born at the end of the 19th century, horse-and-buggy days, and experienced the phenomenal changes of the 20th century machine and space age. Today not only can our great scientists send astronauts to and from the moon to photograph its surface and bring back samples of rocks and other materials, but through the medium of color television all can actually see and experience the thrill of these adventures,” Thomas said in a 1972 artist statement. “These phenomena set my creativity in motion.”

After the initial lunar mission, NASA’s Apollo program continued until 1972. Over the life of the program (1968-1972), there were 11 space flights. Throughout the period, Thomas made Space paintings in her recognizable, expressive abstract style. Works such as “Apollo 12 Splash Down” (1970) displayed her exuberant use of color and the technical acumen with which she executed countless dabs of paint in rhythmic patterns.

Two Space paintings are in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum: “Launch Pad” (1970) and “Blast Off” (1970). The American Art Museum owns 30 works by Thomas. Several are Space paintings, including “Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset” (1970), “Atmospheric Effects” I and II (1971), “The Eclipse” (1970), and “Celestial Fantasy” (1973). The Smithsonian describes her Space paintings as mostly “large sparkling works with implied movement achieved through floating patterns of broken colors against a white background.”

“Today not only can our great scientists send astronauts to and from the moon to photograph its surface and bring back samples of rocks and other materials, but through the medium of color television all can actually see and experience the thrill of these adventures. These phenomena set my creativity in motion.” — Alma Thomas


ALMA THOMAS, “Blast Off,” 1970 (acrylic on canvas). | Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Gift of Vincent Melzac

 

BORN IN COLUMBUS, GA., Thomas lived and worked in Washington, D.C. For 35 years, she was a public school teacher at Shaw Junior High. An active artist most of her life, when Thomas retired in 1960, she was finally able to devote herself to her practice full time. She was 68. Long influenced by the beauty of nature—the trees and flowers outside her kitchen window and at the National Arboretum—space became a motivator, too. By the time Apollo landed on the moon, she was in her late 70s.

It was the end of the civil rights era and artists were demanding change in New York City museums. In the wake of meetings with the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, the Whitney Museum of American Art agreed to present a series of solo exhibitions featuring African American artists in a small lobby gallery. Thomas was among those selected for the opportunity and when her show opened in 1972, she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum.

“Mars Dust” (1972) was among the works on view. The planet was another source of inspiration for her Space paintings. A sea of red dabs over a surface of grays and charcoal, the Whitney Museum acquired the painting the same year it was made and shown.

Alma Thomas was selected for the opportunity and when her show opened in 1972, she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum. “Mars Dust” (1972) was among the works on view.

More than four decades later, when the Whitney Museum opened in a brand new Renzo Piano-designed building in Meatpacking District, the museum described it as “an opportunity to reexamine the history of art in the United States from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present.” It inaugurated the space in 2015 with “America is Hard to See,” an exhibition featuring works drawn from the museum’s collection, including “Mars Dust.”

Three years ago, the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and the Studio Museum in Harlem co-organized a Thomas exhibition. The show was the first comprehensive survey of her work in nearly 20 years and included paintings, watercolors, and experimental studies.

Titled simply, “Alma Thomas,” the exhibition was presented thematically, focusing on four distinct directions in her work—a “Move to Abstraction” and away from figuration, paintings inspired by “Earth” and “Space,” and works defined by “Mosaic” patterns.

The catalog that accompanied the exhibition is divided into the same four sections. Curator Lauren Haynes contributed an essay to the volume about Thomas’s Space paintings.

“The majority of Thomas’s career took place over eighteen years; for much of this time she was often suffering from arthritis that made it difficult to work. But her practice was continually evolving. Her interest and response to space exploration and technological advancements are another expression of this growth,” Haynes concluded.

“Not content to just focus on the world right outside her window, Thomas looked to the skies and imagined not only what the astronauts saw or experienced, but also, what Earth looks like from there.” CT

 

BOOKSHELF
Published to accompany the exhibition organized by the Tang Teaching Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem, “Alma Thomas” features more than 125 vibrant, colorful paintings and works on paper, many published for the first time, a preface by Thelma Golden, scholarly essays, and responses to Thomas’s work by four contemporary artists. “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings,” documents the traveling exhibition organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (1998-2000). An earlier catalog, “A Life in Art: Alma W. Thomas, 1891-1978,” was published on the occasion of a Smithsonian exhibition (1981–1982).

 


ALMA THOMAS, “Celestial Fantasy,” 1973 (acrylic on canvas, 60 x 54 inches / 152.4 x 137.2 cm). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist, 1980.36.11

 

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ALMA THOMAS, “Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset,” 1970 (acrylic on canvas, 47 7/8 x 47 7/8 inches / 121.6 x 121.6 cm). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist

 

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ALMA THOMAS, “Mars Dust,” 1972 (acrylic on canvas). | Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase 1972.58. © artist or artist’s estate via Whitney Museum

 


ALMA THOMAS, “Snoopy-Early Sun Display on Earth,” 1970 (acrylic on canvas, 49 7/8 x 48 1/8 inches / 126.8 x 122.1 cm). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976.140.1

 

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ALMA THOMAS, “Stars and Their Display,” 1972 (acrylic on canvas). | Private Collection, Highland Park, IL; Courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem

 


ALMA THOMAS, “The Eclipse,” 1970 (acrylic on canvas, 62 x 49 3/4 inches / 57.5 x 126.5 cm). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1978.40.3

 


ALMA THOMAS, “Atmospheric Effects I,” 1970 (acrylic and pencil on paper, sheet: 22 1/8 x 30 3/8 inches / 56.3 x 77.0 cm). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976.140.3