MUSEUM CURATORS are constantly immersed in art, which might make it a challenge to choose one single work to which they are particularly drawn. When asked to name an artwork she’d want to live with, Zoé Whitley thought about the spring tones of a stunning abstract painting made half a century ago.
“I don’t tend to think about art works as things I want to possess,” Whitley told The Art Newspaper in a recent podcast. “And yet, as soon as that question was asked, there was one painting that immediately I could see super clearly in my head as something I could easily live with and want to look at all the time because it just brings me a lot of joy. It’s a painting called ‘Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto’ by the Washington, D.C., painter Alma Thomas.”
ALMA THOMAS, “Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto,” 1973 (acrylic on canvas, 35 x 52 inches / 89.0 x 132.2 cm). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1975.92.2
Whitley is the new director of Chisenhale Gallery in London. Previously, she worked briefly as a senior curator at Hayward Gallery, and before that served as international curator at the Tate Modern, where she co-organized the landmark exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.”
Based in London for two decades, Whitley was born in Washington, D.C. The Thomas painting brings back sentimental memories of her childhood in the city. She discussed “Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto” (1973) with host Ben Luke on the March 27 episode of The Art Newspaper Podcast.
“My grandmother had a crepe myrtle tree in her back garden and we spent a lot of time outside,” Whitley said. “Exactly these kind of, the wash of color and these kind of shapes that Alma Thomas created with her brushwork, reminded me completely of the way our garden would look—blanketed by the small petals of the crepe myrtle tree in the summertime.”
“The wash of color and these kind of shapes that Alma Thomas created with her brushwork, reminded me completely of the way our garden would look…” — Zoé Whitley
Alma Thomas (1891-1978) was inspired by her natural surroundings and the local flora—the leaves that rustled on the trees outside the front window of her home, the graphic patterns in the flower beds at the National Arboretum, and Washington’s renowned cherry blossoms.
The first graduate of Howard University’s newly formed art department (1924), Thomas taught public school in Washington for 35 years. Over the decades, she earned master’s degrees from American University and Columbia University, honed her painting, and exhibited her work.
She retired in 1960 and dedicated herself to her practice full time. A dozen years later, Thomas became the first black female artist to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was 1972 and she was 80 years old.
The following year, she painted “Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto.” The painting is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), where it was gifted by Vincent Melzac in 1975. Melzac was a collector of Washington Color School paintings and served briefly as CEO of the Corcoran Art Gallery (1971-72).
“Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto” was recently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, featured in “Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art” (Sept. 29, 2019-Jan. 19, 2020), an expansive exhibition presenting works from the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection alongside art from other private and institutional collections.
The painting was displayed in “Generations” with four other works by Thomas: “Pink Dogwoods and Azaleas” (1971) and “#2 Red,” a watercolor on paper (1966), both from the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection; “Arboretum Presents White Dogwood” (1972), a bequest to SAAM from Thomas; and “Evening Glow,” which is in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, gifted by Ruth and Jacob Kainen. The latter taught Thomas at American University.
For about 15 minutes on the podcast, Whitley talked about “Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto” and the arc of Thomas’s pioneering career, her transition from figuration to abstraction, her “facility with color,” the presence of her work in the White House, and her space paintings.
In the course of the conversation, Whitley described Thomas’s paintings as “joyous celebrations of human achievement, of the seasons, of all of the aspects of human creativity and ingenuity that make us who we are.” She added that she found the work “really, really refreshing.” CT
UPDATE (03/31/20): Mention of “Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto” being displayed recently at the Baltimore Museum of Art was incorporated. h/t Susan Talley
FIND MORE about the episode (Zoe Whitley’s interview runs from 12:12-26:35)
FIND MORE about “Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art”
“Alma Thomas” was published to accompany the exhibition organized by the Tang Teaching Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem. “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).
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