On the occasion of TEFAF New York 2022, Blum & Poe is pleased to announce a presentation of work by the late artist Thornton Dial (b. 1928, Emelle, AL; d. 2016, McCalla, AL). The paintings and assemblages gathered here serve as an abridged introduction to the twenty-eight years Dial spent creating an extensive oeuvre that tells of such struggles as the Black experience in the Jim Crow South and issues of identity and representation in the contemporary world. This presentation takes the viewer on a journey traversing themes embedded in the long genealogy of Black creativity, the transformation and symbolic energies of salvaged materials, the fragility and persistence of human life, and the realization of a triumphant, enduring legacy.
Our story begins with the work A Bird Will Always Find Food Under a Tree (1989), which exemplifies Dial’s practice of disguising racially charged themes with animal imagery. Dial’s birds are both a symbol of the Jim Crow laws that afflicted Black Americans for almost a century and of the potential for freedom and the ability to overcome such oppression. Throughout Dial’s oeuvre, animals often recur as avatars or human surrogates. This idiosyncratic/distinctive visual language allowed him to express his desire for racial justice without risking repercussions—such as the loss of his job as a factory worker in Bessemer, AL.
Later in his career—after his use of animal imagery had been made widely known through multiple institutional presentations—Dial began to depict the organic through abstract or monochromatic works, using this style to explore themes such as the cyclical processes of decay and renewal. The title of Pink Condition (2007) is an idiomatic term for peak health and vigor. Executed entirely in shades of pink, this work is one of several ambitious paintings dominated by a single color. Over the course of his career, Dial developed several meanings for the color pink, but here it represents life in its embryonic stages. Above the picture’s surface, a scaffolding of stretched cloth strips is likewise developing: the “bones” to the painted surface’s “flesh.” This pink skeleton flexes and bends like a fawn attempting to stand or a baby taking its first, tentative steps. Dial saw the precariousness of life as a starting point for understanding crucial social values, such as care and empathy, in that the protective and nurturing love for the newly born is a universal impulse.
In 2009, at eighty-one, Dial suffered a stroke and stopped making art for more than a year. In late 2010, the artist returned to his studio with a new reality of diminished physical strength and an outlook altered by prolonged rehabilitation. During this period, Dial’s subject matter shifted toward themes such as natural disasters and departed family members—concerns about mortality became paramount. Dial’s life and work, however, had always been sustained by optimism about the future. Over time, artistic evocations of trauma and calamity made room for the possibility of renewal and, with it, fresh thinking. In Livelying Up the Fade (2012), the artist began to explore new styles and subject matters—imbuing his work with even more life.
From 2011 to 2015, Dial’s paintings gradually shed many of their sculptural qualities, including most of the found materials that had been so prevalent in his early career. By 2015, the paintings’ surfaces had become nearly flat. Dial would cut bits of canvas and carpet into unusual shapes that he would then collage over canvas and wood. Often, the bits that Dial used in his collages were singed black around their edges— as if they had survived a fire. When the literal fabric of art making becomes its primary material, it can be understood that the work in question is reflexive—art made to address art making. In the case of Head of the Class (2015), and other pieces made with collaged canvas in the singed style, Dial shows that he has continued making art throughout his period of focus on mortality. On the other side, we see Dial assured that his work—a practice that he concealed for decades, afraid of the consequences of addressing issues of race from within the very institutions that perpetuate them—would outlast its creator and influence future generations.
Dial’s original studio, a corrugated-tin building behind his house, had a large-scale rose painted on the inside of its door. This rose announced the artist’s overarching pursuit of the kind of beauty that transcends cultural differences, even as his daily practice confronted injustice and moral deficiencies permeating human affairs. Flowers in Dial’s art represent the transient and recurrent nature of beauty as much as they do beauty itself. Widely associated with the cycle of life, lilies feature in at least five works from the second half of 2015, the year preceding the artist’s passing. In Head of the Class, one ochre-colored lily stands out from the off-white blooms that encircle it. For an artist searching for themes and symbols that would remain relevant in a future world, one that he knew he would not be a part of, the title suggests a certain prescience; a sure knowledge of the prevailing importance of Dial’s work—and his legacy.
Thornton Dial’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions including at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA (2016); Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN (2011); New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA (2011); Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX (2005); New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, NY (1993); American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY (1993); and was included in the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY (2000). Dial is represented in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY; de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Pérez Art Museum, Miami, FL; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, among many other museums.
With many thanks to Paul Arnett, whose generous scholarship was invaluable to the organization of this presentation.