Alma Thomas: The Light of the Whole Universe

July 27, 2018–December 1, 2019


The works in the gallery are largely from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The period was defined by the civil rights and feminist movements in the U.S. and by anti-colonial and independence movements around the world, including the two-decade long Vietnam War.

While artists like Charles White and Wadsworth Jarrell saw figuration as a way to advance political and social causes, others, such as Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, Joan Mitchell, Ibrahim El-Salahi, and James Suzuki, embraced abstraction. Whether they made figurative or abstract art, these artists worked both in and against modern art at a time when positions of power and influence were predominantly occupied by white, straight, and Euro-American men.

New materials developed during World War II (1939–45) also transformed art in these decades. For example, Philadelphia’s Rohm and Haas (now The Dow Chemical Company) applied lessons gleaned from one of its wartime acrylic products—Plexiglass—to develop acrylic paint. The invention of this highly saturated, quick drying, plastic-based paint, employed by Alma Thomas, Helen Frankenthaler, and Sam Gilliam, radically changed the way artists worked once it became commercially available in the 1950s.

The use of translucent plastics by Fred Eversley, Larry Bell, and Louise Nevelson in addition to experiments with the shape and finish of metals by Michelangelo Pistoletto, Donald Judd, and John Chamberlain show just some of the ways artists exploited the creative potential of these new materials.

Artists: Mary Bauermeister, Larry Bell, John Chamberlain, Chryssa, Fred Eversley, Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Gilliam, Grace Hartigan, Wadsworth Jarrell, Donald Judd, Mishima Kimiyo, Joan Mitchell, Elizabeth Murray, Louise Nevelson, Irene Rice Pereira, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Alma Thomas and Charles White.

Purchased with the Hillyer-Mather-Tryon Fund, the Madeleine H. Russell, class of 1937, Fund, the Kathleen Compton Sherrerd, class of 1954, Acquisition Fund for American Art and the Dorothy C. Miller, class of 1925, Fund. Image courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY.


Image credit: Alma Thomas, American, 1891–1978. Morning in the Bowl of Night, 1973. Acrylic on canvas.