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 1961Alma 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.
(Tate Gallery)

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.

Alma Thomas at work in her studio, 1970s?

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 KainenRobert Gates, Joe Summerford, and Lois Mailou Jones.

Alma Thomas, Oriental Garden Concerto, 1976
acrylic on canvas, 68 1/4 X 54 1/4″.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

If there was any real “crime” committed by the Obamas in the selection of their White House collection, it was that only 6 (!) of the 45 pieces were by women. (Louise Nevelson and Susan Rothenberg also included.)  Worse perhaps, no Latinos/as were represented at all.  Not exactly  “Change We Can Believe In.”

Alma Thomas, White Roses Sing and Sing, 1976
acrylic on canvas, 72 1/2 x 52 3/8″.
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The Hullaballoo

Michelle Malkin—Do the Watusi: Art, Imitation, and the Obamas

greg.org—“On Wingnuts on Alma Thomas”

Steven Kaplan—“Watusi vs. L’Escargot: Another Desperate Republican Attempt to Smear Obama”

The Mississippifarian—“It’s Called ‘Having a Clue.’ “

Wider Connections

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

US Copyright Office

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4 Responses to “Alma Thomas: On the Shoulders of Giants”

  1. I remember when I saw her work in person, years ago in Wash DC (I think). The work is so vibrant and joyous and her story so powerful that I was very touched. The fact that the finger-pointers aren’t touched shows what they have in place of a heart and a brain- something that resembles a small, hard rock. Re: the copyright issue. It looks like Fairey’s non-attributed borrowings are being found out but it’s too bad that what he’s stolen from Cuban and Chinese artists (among others) won’t give them any more money or public recognition. It’s too bad that it’s the wealthy art guys that muddy the waters for more honest and less well-off artists. When I read that article about Hirst, I was disgusted and Koons disgusted me from the first.
    Alma, however, is a far different matter.

  2. Liz, While it’s clear that most of the noise in the blogosphere about Alma Thomas is politically and racially motivated, the idea of artists “copying” the work of others is an interesting one to address. While doing some reading about the Bauhaus while preparing my post on Gunta Stolzl, I came across a painting by Roy Lichtenstein entitled Bauhaus Stairway (1988). It was based on a work of the same title, painted by Oskar Schlemmer (1932) that in turn was based on a 1927 photo that Lyonel Feininger took of the Bauhaus weavers on the steps to the new building in Dessau. Schlemmer and Lichtenstein openly acknowledged their debt to the work that inspired them and all three are valid, and original, works of art.
    In The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1922), poet T.S.Eliot wrote an essay about playwright Philip Massinger (1583-1640) in which he said: “One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
    Christine

  3. What a marvelous quote. I’m adding it to my commonplace book and might just use it in a future post. Of course, previous generations of painters trained by copying the old masters. I don’t know when that fell out of favor but I remember copying plaster busts of Greek and Roman statues when I studied drawing as a teenager – and that was in the last century! I think there’s a place for copying during the learning process and even after; I read somewhere that many artists go back to the old masters to renew and refresh. But the distinction that TS Eliot made between mature and immature is even more valid today.

  4. Is there anyone on this planet that believes that “Watusi” is Alma Thomas’ strongest work of her career? It must have been the only painting by this genius of an artist, who if born a white man, would have been considered an equal genius to Morris Lewis/K. Noland, available for the Obama’s since it isn’t.

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