Composing Color at SAAM: Paintings by Alma Thomas

Since getting the latest vaccine, and still being somewhat careful about our out and about contact, a friend and I have resumed our Saturday “brunch and wander” adventures, and we ended up seeing the Alma Thomas paintings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The largest work by Alma Thomas, the three-panel painting "Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music".
Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music.

In the mid-1960s, Alma Thomas created a painting style distinctly her own, characterized by the dazzling interplay of pattern and vibrant color. In her work, color can be symbolic and multisensory, evoking sound, motion, temperature, even scent. Her abiding source of inspiration was nature-whether seen through her kitchen window or from outer space. Thomas once stated, “Art could be anything. It could be behavior-as long as it’s beautiful.” During a politically charged time in American life, she maintained belief in the recuperative power of beauty and dedicated herself to its cultivation.


As a black woman artist, Alma Thomas encountered many barriers; she did not, however, turn to racial or feminist issues in her art, believing rather that the creative spirit is independent of race or gender. In Washington, D.C., where she lived and worked after 1921, Thomas became identified with Morris Louis, Gene Davis, and other Color Field painters active in the area since the 1950s. Like them, she explored the power of color and form in luminous, contemplative paintings.


I’m always about colorful art and abstract art, so when I read about it online, I made sure it was on our radar to visit. And I don’t have much more to say about it, except that if you can make time to see it–it’s about 3 rooms of paintings–you should. It’s fascinating to see how she takes simple shapes, generally sort of paint blocks, but will add a curve here, a line there, a deliberate diagonal bias, and suddenly your perception of the image can change.

If you can’t see it in person, there are some of Thomas’ paintings in the SAAM digital archive, and as we start to head into the hues of Fall and the bleak (maybe? maybe not?) Winter ahead, this was a much-needed infusion of color and art for an afternoon. I’m not sure how much we’ll get out and about when it gets colder, but while the moderate weather lasts, I’m glad we can take time to feed our spirit at the local exhibits.

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