|January 25, 2016 87) (aged
|assemblage paintings, sculpture
|Clara Mae Murrow
Thornton Dial (28 September 1928 – 25 January 2016) was a pioneering American artist who came to prominence in the late 1980s. Dial's body of work exhibits formal variety through expressive, densely composed assemblages of found materials, often executed on a monumental scale. His range of subjects embraces a broad sweep of history, from human rights to natural disasters and current events. Dial's works are widely held in American museums; ten of Dial's works were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014.
Thornton Dial was born in 1928 to a teenage mother, Mattie Bell, on a former cotton plantation in Emelle, Alabama, where relatives in his extended family worked as sharecroppers. He lived with his mother until he was around three when Dial and his half-brother Arthur moved in with their second cousin, Buddy Jake Dial, who was a farmer. When Thornton moved in with Buddy Jake, he farmed and learned about the sculptures that Buddy Jake made from items lying around the yard, an experience that influenced him.Dial grew up in poverty and without the presence of his father.
In 1940, when he was twelve, Dial moved to Bessemer, Alabama. When he arrived in Bessemer, he noticed the art along the way in people's yards and was amazed at the level of craft exhibited.He married Clara Mae Murrow in 1951. They have five children, one of whom died of cerebral palsy. The late artist Ronald Lockett was his cousin.
His principal place of employment was as a metalworker at the Pullman Standard Plant in Bessemer, Alabama, which made railroad cars. The plant closed its doors in 1981.After the Pullman factory shut down, Dial began to dedicate himself to his art for his own pleasure.
In 1987 Thornton Dial met Lonnie Holley, an artist who introduced Dial to Atlanta collector and art historian William Arnett. Arnett, whose art historical interests had now focused on African-American vernacular art and artists, brought Dial's work to national prominence. The art historian has also brought Lonnie Holley, the Gee's Bend Quilters and many others to the attention of the United States.Arnett, with Jane Fonda also helped to create a publishing company, in 1996, along with his sons Paul and Matt. He is also the founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation and documentation of African American art.
Dial's work has been continually heralded in international cultural institutions and large survey exhibitions, such as the 2000 Whitney Biennial.Over time, the context for Dial's work has expanded to showcase the political and social responsiveness of his artwork, expressing "ideas about black history, slavery, racial discrimination, urban and rural poverty, industrial or environmental collapse, and spiritual salvation". Since 2011 the language surrounding Dial's artwork and practice has shifted. This change in perception was the result of the first touring retrospective of Dial's work curated by art historian and cultural critic Joanne Cubbs for the Indianapolis Museum of Art. In reviews of this exhibition, Dial received unprecedented recognition in the national press, which, for the first time, positioned him as a bonafide contemporary artist. For example, Karen Wilkin of The Wall Street Journal called Dial's work “first-rate, powerful Art–with a capital ‘A.’” Later, the Journal also named the Dial retrospective one of the best museum shows of 2011, alongside showings of such major art world luminaries as Degas, Picasso, Kandinsky and Willem de Kooning.
In another 2011 review of the Hard Truths exhibition, art and architecture critic Richard Lacayo published a four-page story on Dial in Time Magazine, arguing that Dial's work should not be pigeon-holed into the narrowly-defined category of "outsider art":
Dial's work has sometimes been described as "outsider art", a term that attempts to cover the product of everyone from naive painters like Grandma Moses to institutionalized lost souls like Martín Ramírez and full-bore obsessives like Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor... But if there's one lesson to take away from "Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial," a triumphant new retrospective at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, it's that Dial, 82, doesn't belong within even the broad confines of that category....What he does can be discussed as art, just art, no surplus notions of outsiderness required....And not just that, but some of the most assured, delightful and powerful art around.
In still another response to the Hard Truths exhibition, New York Times reporter Carol Kino described Dial's "work's look, ambition, and obvious intellectual reach hew[ing] closely to that of many other modern and contemporary masters, from Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg to Jean-Michel Basquiat."Most recently, Alex Greenberger of ARTnews similarly said: "Thornton Dial has been termed an outsider artist, a vernacular artist, and a folk artist—but any of those labels might be a misnomer, since the late painter's work has been gradually moving into the mainstream art world's view in the past few years."
Thornton Dial's work addresses American sociopolitical exigencies such as war, racism, bigotry and homelessness. He draws attention to these themes using the overlooked and under-considered material artifacts of everyday American life. Combining paint and found materials, Dial constructs large-scale assemblages with cast-away objects ranging from rope to bones to buckets.Works such as Black Walk and The Blood of Hard Times, for example, use corrugated tin and other dilapidated pieces of metal to refer to the destitute bodies and vernacular architecture of the rural South. Dial invokes the history of the American rural South throughout much of his work.
The symbol of the tiger is also a primary visual trope in Thornton Dial's oeuvre. Artist and African-American art historian David C. Driskell explained Dial's use of the tiger as an allegory for survival and an implicit reference to the struggle for civil rights in the United States.
In 1993, Dial's work was the subject of a large exhibition that was presented simultaneously at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the American Folk Art Museum in New York. In 2000, the artist's work was included in the Whitney Biennial, and in 2005–06, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presented a major exhibition entitled "Thornton Dial in the 21st Century," which was followed in 2011–13 by the major touring retrospective "Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial." Dial's works can be found in many notable public and private collections, including those of, among other institutions, the High Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the American Folk Art Museum, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; and the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
In the works made a few years before the artist’s death, Thornton Dial created layered, heavily textured compositions with an array of found materials, such as ash, wire fencing and scrap metal. Caked onto the thick canvases, the objects are almost unrecognizable—towels look like porous coral and curled scrap metal appears clothlike.
On November 24, 2014, The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that 57 works by contemporary African American artists from the Southern United States—including 10 works by Dial—were donated to the museum by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from its William S. Arnett Collection. An exhibition devoted to the gift opened at the Metropolitan Museum on May 22, 2018, and ran until September of that year.
As Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum, described the gift, "From Thornton Dial's magisterial constructions to the emblematic compositions by the Gee's Bend quilters from the 1930s onwards, this extraordinary group of works contributes immeasurably to the museum's representation of works by contemporary American artists and augments on a historic scale its holdings of contemporary art."
Two of Dial's major works were included in a March 2016 gift to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts by the president of its board of trustees, William A. Royall, and his wife, Pam. Those works are the iconic, "Old Uncle Buck (The Negro Got to Find Out What's Going On in the United States)," from 2002; and the monumental 2005 sculpture, "Freedom Cloth."
The High Museum of Art in Atlanta had a memorial exhibition, on view February 13 to May 1, 2016, that presented a selection of Dial's exuberant drawings and symbolically rich paintings that the museum has collected over the past twenty years. In April 2016 Marianne Boesky Gallery presented "We All Live Under the Same Old Flag", a show dedicated to Dial since his death.Artsy, the online industry publication, gave the Dial show at Marianne, "We All Live Under the Same Old Flag", top billing among 15 "blockbuster", "must-see" gallery exhibitions on display during the month of May.
In 2018, David Lewis Gallery presented "Mr. Dial's America," a survey of Thornton Dial's work from 1989 - 2011.The show garnered significant press, including a review from the editors of ARTnews, who praised the artist's diverse oeuvre of "early self-portraits as well as paintings treating Jim Crow–era America and the struggle for civil rights, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the site of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks." Writing of the show in the New York Times, Roberta Smith commends "Dial's ability to commandeer any material into a painting," and called the works "fiercely formal in ways that connect to Jackson Pollock's allover fields of dripped paint and the object paintings of Anselm Kiefer and Julian Schnabel."
Thornton married Clara Mae Murrow in 1951. At his death he was survived by three sons, Thornton Jr., Richard and Dan, a daughter, Matte Dial, as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Clara Mae Dial died in 2005.
Dial's work has been exhibited throughout the United States since 1990. Museum exhibitions include:
Lonnie Bradley Holley, sometimes known as the Sand Man, is an American artist, art educator, and musician. He is best known for his assemblages and immersive environments made of found materials. In 1981, after he brought a few of his sandstone carvings to then-Birmingham Museum of Art director Richard Murray, the latter helped to promote his work. In addition to solo exhibitions at the Birmingham Museum of Art and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, Holley has exhibited in group exhibitions with other Black artists from the American South at the Michael C. Carlos Museum and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, Pérez Art Museum Miami, NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, de Young Museum in San Francisco, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England, and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, among other places.
Purvis Young was an American artist from the Overtown neighborhood of Miami, Florida. Young's work, often a blend of collage and painting, utilizes found objects and the experience of African Americans in the south. Young gained recognition as a cult contemporary artist, with a collectors' following that included Jane Fonda, Damon Wayans, Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and others. In 2006 a feature documentary titled Purvis of Overtown was produced about his life and work. His work is found in the collections of the American Folk Art Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the High Museum of Art, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Bakehouse Art Complex, and others. In 2018, he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.
The quilts of Gee's Bend are quilts created by a group of women and their ancestors who live or have lived in the isolated African-American hamlet of Gee's Bend, Alabama along the Alabama River. The quilts of Gee's Bend are among the most important African-American visual and cultural contributions to the history of art within the United States. Arlonzia Pettway, Annie Mae Young and Mary Lee Bendolph are among some of the most notable quilters from Gee's Bend. Many of the residents in the community can trace their ancestry back to enslaved people from the Pettway Plantation. Arlonzia Pettway can recall her grandmother's stories of her ancestors, specifically of Dinah Miller, who was brought to the United States by slave ship in 1859.
Nellie Mae Rowe was an African-American artist from Fayette County, Georgia. Although she is best known today for her colorful works on paper, Rowe worked across mediums, creating drawings, collages, altered photographs, hand-sewn dolls, home installations and sculptural environments. She was said to have an "instinctive understanding of the relation between color and form." Her work focuses on race, gender, domesticity, African-American folklore, and spiritual traditions.
William Sidney Arnett was an Atlanta-based writer, editor, curator and art collector who built internationally important collections of African, Asian, and African American art. Arnett was the founder and chairman of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation and documentation of African American art from the Deep South that works in coordination with leading museums and scholars to produce groundbreaking exhibitions and publications using its extensive holdings. His efforts produced 13 books with nearly 100 essays by 73 authors. Thirty-eight museums have hosted major exhibitions, and comprehensive archives are maintained at UNC Chapel Hill. The White House has shown the collection. Arnett exhibited works from these collections and delivered lectures at over 100 museums and educational institutions in the United States and abroad. He is perhaps best known for writing about and collecting the work of African American artists from the Deep South. Arnett was named one of the "100 Most Influential Georgians" by Georgia Trend Magazine in January 2015. He died on August 12, 2020.
Lorenzo Scott was born in 1934 in West Point, Georgia. Scott is a contemporary American artist whose work gained prominence in the late 1980s.
John Bunion (J.B.) Murray was an abstract expressionist painter from Glascock County, GA. His work has been shown among folk art exhibitions and is included at the American Folk Art Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and has been featured in many museum exhibitions, including "Self-Taught Genius" at AFAM and "When the Stars Begin to Fall" at the Studio Museum. His work is best known for its codified use of colors and improvised script, called "spirit script," which could only be translated by the artist.
Souls Grown Deep Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting, preserving, and promoting the work of leading contemporary African American artists from the Southeastern United States. Its mission is to include their contributions in the canon of American art history through acquisitions from its collection by major museums, as well as through exhibitions, programs, and publications. The foundation derives its name from a 1921 poem by Langston Hughes (1902–1967) titled "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," the last line of which is "My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Willie Young is a 20th-century American artist. Young is mainly self-taught, and his work has been exhibited alongside other prominent outsider artists, such as Bill Traylor, Nellie Mae Rowe and Thornton Dial. The main body of his work consists of delicately rendered graphite drawings.
Hawkins Bolden (1914–2005) was an American artist known for his "scarecrow" assemblages made from pots, pans, leather belts, rubber hoses and other found materials.
"Missionary" Mary L. Proctor is an American artist, best known for her visionary paintings, collages, and assemblages.
Lucy Marie (Young) Mingo is an American quilt maker and member of the Gee's Bend Collective from Gee's Bend (Boykin), Alabama. She was an early member of the Freedom Quilting Bee, which was an alternative economic organization created in 1966 to raise the socio-economic status of African-American communities in Alabama. She was also among the group of citizens who accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. on his 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Joe Minter is an American sculptor based in Birmingham, Alabama. His African Village in America, on the southwest edge of Birmingham, is an ever-evolving art environment populated by sculptures he makes from scrap metal and found materials; its theme is recognition of African American history from the first arrivals of captured Africans to the present. Individual pieces from Minter's thirty-year project have been in major exhibitions in the United States and are in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.
Vernon Burwell (1916–1990) was an African-American sculptor known for his painted cement sculptures of animals and busts of historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Arthur Dial is an American painter and sculptor living and working in Bessemer, Alabama. He is a part of the Dial family of artists, which include his older brother, Thornton Dial, and his nephews, Thornton Dial Jr., Richard Dial, and Ronald Lockett.
Richard Dial is an African–American designer and sculptor known for his metal works and anthropomorphic furniture. Dial lives and works in Bessemer, AL.
Thornton Dial Jr. is a contemporary African-American painter, sculptor, and assemblage artist living and working in Bessemer, Alabama. He is the eldest son of prolific modern artist, Thornton Dial Sr. His work is best identified by its bold, evocative political and social commentary.
Ralph Griffin (1925–1992) was an American sculptor known for his sculptures made from tree roots.
Leroy Person (1907–1985) was an American sculptor and wood carver from a remote region in northeastern North Carolina. Person's sculptures, and later, drawings, are recognized for their particular sensitivity to color and surface markings.
Henry Speller (1900–1997) was an American artist and blues musician working in Memphis, Tennessee. His style of drawing and painting is characterized by ornate, colorful, intimidating figures which he likened to "characters from Dallas".
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