At Michael Rosenfeld, Alma Thomas Paints Abstract Pictures of Daily Work

THE DAILY PIC: The Washington painter achieved a superlative modesty.


THE DAILY PIC: Alma Thomas, an African American artist from Washington, painted Oriental Sunset in 1973. It’s now in her solo show at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York.

For all its eye-appeal, what especially interests me is how casually Oriental Sunset seems to be made – just a bunch of haphazard red brushstrokes sitting on a yellow ground. That distinguishes it from any number of precedents: from the extreme care and discipline of tidy formalists such as Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland; from the expressionist gestures of Pollock and his crew, for whom every pictorial gesture was (over-)ripe with meaning; and even from the completely arbitrary gestures of conceptual painting, where there doesn’t seem to be any volition, of any kind, behind what happens on the canvas.

Thomas seems to occupy a lovely middle-ground of just-good-enough painting–the painterly equivalent of a floor well-enough swept, a letter well-enough written, a soup well-enough cooked. That is, it’s painting that reflects the lives of all the millions of people (including many women) who haven’t had the luxury to perseverate over perfection. It echoes–and provides–the special middle-ground pleasures of  domestic life.

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