Alma Thomas: On the Shoulders of Giants
Editor’s Note: Over the past several weeks our contributors have been on hiatus, in order to participate in SF Open Studios event. With this piece Venetian Red resumes its regular posting schedule.
By LIZ HAGER
Alma Thomas, Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music, 1976,
acrylic on canvas, 72 1/4 x 135 1/2″.
(The Smithsonian American Art Museum)
In 1924, Alma Thomas (1891-1978) became the first woman to graduate from Howard University’s newly-created fine arts department. Quite possibly, she was the first African-American to hold this kind of degree. She went on to become the first women to receive a Masters’ degree (teaching) from Columbia University. For 35 years, Thomas dedicated herself to teaching art to high school students. She retired in 1960, in order to focus on her own work. In her 70s, plagued by arthritis and degenerating eyesight, she threw herself into her work. In 1972, at age 80, she became the first African-American woman to have a solo show mounted by the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Two weeks ago, Alma Thomas made news yet again.
Alma Thomas, Blue Abstraction, c.1961
oil on canvas, 34 x 40″.
(Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
Although the list of artworks the Obamas have requisitioned for the White House collection was released months ago, it wasn’t until a recent New York Times’ article—“White House Art”—that members of the conservative blogosphere found another excuse to blast the Obama administration. Indignant, they locked their rifle scopes on one painting in particular, Alma Thomas’ Watusi (Hard Edge). Free Republic and Michelle Malkin posted particularly exemplary pieces, decrying the work as an “almost exact replication” of Henri Matisse’s (1869-1954) The Snail. All Thomas had done, they argued, was to rotate Matisse’s canvas clockwise 90° and change some colors. “An embarrassment for the ‘sophisticates’ who failed to spot a copy hiding in plain sight,” one blogger hissed.
Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953
gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted on canvas, approximately 113″ square.
Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963
acrylic on canvas, 47 5/8 x 44 1/4″.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)
The outcry was predictably bereft of thoughtful analysis. In the aggregate, the derisive comments—”my two year old could have done that” and “the crap that passes for art”— not to mention downright ugly sneers—”The original itself is a hoax. Most modern art is.”—might otherwise be a sobering reminder that a vocal segment of the population appears truly threatened by modern art. Predictably, though, the commentators revealed themselves to be neither knowledgeable nor interested in the subject of modern art. No, it was pretty clear from the particulars (including some nasty, racially-oriented snips) that Thomas and, by extension modern art, was merely the scapegoat here; Watusi was the vehicle through which the conservative fringe could ridicule, yet again, the President’s alleged lack of judgment. One self-appoint -ed cognoscente snickered: “He can’t even pick real art.”
Jean Arp, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance), 1916-1917
torn-and-pasted paper and colored paper on colored paper, 19 1/8 x 13 5/8″.
(Museum of Modern Art; © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)
Did Alma Thomas copy Matisse? When it comes to intellectual property, despite legal guidelines, copying is often harder to prove than it would seem.
Alma Thomas, Early Cherry Blossoms, 1973,
acrylic on canvas, 69 x 50″.
(Michael Rosenfeld Gallery)
On the one hand, as any trained artist knows, examining the world through the eyes of others is a necessary step on the road to developing a “mature” personal style. Indeed, all of human progress has been built on the shoulders of previous giants. Matisse’s cutouts could not have existed without the work of the collagists who preceded him—Jean Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch—who in turn owed debts to earlier Cubists, Picasso and Braque. And on it goes.
Henri Matisse, Snow Flowers,1951,
watercolor and gouache on cut and pasted papers, 75 11/16 x 35 7/8″.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
On the other hand, illegitimate copying is real. Both Richard Prince (See VR’s “Prince of Pilfer”) and Jeff Koons have been sued by photographers for incorporating copyrighted work into their own. Koons lost the Rogers v. Koons case, but won a more recent suit under the “fair use” doctrine. Readers will remember that earlier this year Damien Hirst threatened to sue a 16-year-old over his use of an image of Hirst’s diamond-incrusted skull, in the process demanding royalties.
In the imaginary case of Matisse v. Thomas, interpretations of the “substantially similar” clause suggest many ambiguities that would present a challenge to definitively proving copyright infringement. (Imagined cries of “I know copying when I see it!” from Thomas bashers aside.) Thomas always credited Matisse for the inspiration that produced Watusi. It is obvious that the work launched her on a journey of artistic discovery that produced her unique and forward-looking (if not radical) mosaic style.
To assert that Thomas was “simply copying” Matisse would be to deny the rich and varied underpinnings of her work. Thomas was deeply impressed by the colors and patterns of the natural world around her. “Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors,” she once said.
Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fetiches, 1938
oil on linen, approximately 21 x 25″.
(The Smithsonian American Art Museum)
At her best, Thomas adeptly fused her own interpretation of the modernist approaches to color with the craft traditions (textile-based in Thomas’ case) of black America to arrive at a style that, while abstract, never quite looses its connection with natural form. In addition to Matisse, Thomas identified with the work of Cézanne, as well as her teachers Jacob Kainen, Robert Gates, Joe Summerford, and Lois Mailou Jones.
Michelle Malkin—Do the Watusi: Art, Imitation, and the Obamas
greg.org—“On Wingnuts on Alma Thomas”
The Mississippifarian—“It’s Called ‘Having a Clue.’ “
Holland Cotter—“Colors From a World of Black and White”
Self-taught sculptor William Edmondson was the first African-American to have a solo show in a major US museum. See “Doin’ the Lord’s Work.”
John Elderfield—The Cutouts of Henri Matisse
Merry Foresta—Alma Thomas: A Life in Art
News Grist: Audio Symposium—A Search for Comity in the Intellectual Property Wars