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Entries in Abstract Expressionism (17)


Alma Thomas: A Concentration on Beauty and Happiness

Alma Thomas - Atmospheric Effects I - 1970 - Acrylics and Pencil on Paper - 22 1/8 x 30 3/8 in. - Smithsonian American Art Museum - Washington D.C. (click photo for larger image)African-American Abstract Expressionist Alma Thomas (c. 1891-1976) was the first graduate of Howard University’s art department (in 1924). Though she’d always had dreams of becoming an architect—after college she began a 35-year career teaching in a Washington, D.C. junior high school. With the income she supported herself and her art.

Although Thomas earlier works were representational and realistic, she eventually developed her signature style in her 70s—large, abstract paintings filled with dense, irregular patterns of bright colors.

Thomas became an important role model for women, for African Americans, and for older artists. She was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and she exhibited her paintings at the White House three times.

“Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man's inhumanity to man.” - Alma Thomas


Esteban Vicente: A Trailblazer

Esteban Vicente, No. 3, 1959, oil on canvas, 177.8 x 200 cm - Museo Nacional Centro de Arte, Reina Sofia - Madrid, Spain (click photo for larger image)Although Abstract Expressionism is a very broad term referring to numerous styles and approaches, all of its practitioners were committed to art as expressions of the self, born out of profound emotion and universal themes. They were most heavily influenced by Surrealism, which adapted to the anxiety and trauma of the post-war era. In their success, these New York painters robbed Paris of its mantle as leader of modern art, and set the stage for America's dominance of the international art world.

Most of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism matured in the 1930s. They were influenced by the era's far leftist politics, and came to value an art grounded in personal experience. Few would maintain their earlier radical political views, but many continued to adopt the posture of outspoken avant-garde artists and supporters.

Spanish-born Esteban Vicente (1903-2001) was a first-generation member of the avant-garde New York school of painting, which flourished from the 1940s to the ’80s.

In 1929, after training at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid, Vicente moved to Paris, where he met Pablo Picasso. Vicente divided his time between Paris, Madrid, and Barcelona until 1936, when he relocated to New York City. During the 1940s Vicente began to create abstract paintings. He contributed to the highly publicized “Talent 1950” exhibition at the Kootz Gallery, which showcased paintings by New York school artists. He shared a studio with fellow Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning for a time. (See more about de Kooning and Abstract Expressionism here on What About Art?) 

From 1964 until the mid-1980s, Vicente taught art at a number of universities, including Black Mountain (N.C.) College, NYU, and Yale. In 1998 the Spanish government opened the Esteban Vicente Contemporary Art Museum in Segovia.


Jack Tworkov: Broad Strokes

Jack Tworkov - West 23rd - 1963 - Oil on canvas - 60 in. x 6 ft. 8 in. - Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) - New York, NY (click photo for larger image)Jack Tworkov (1900-1982) was a Polish-born American painter. An exponent of Abstract Expressionism, Tworkov was a founding member of the New York School, whose style was characterized by gestural brushwork.

Tworkov immigrated to the United States in 1913. After receiving a degree in creative writing from Columbia University (1923), he returned to his earlier interest in painting. While Tworkov’s early paintings reflect a profound admiration for the work of Paul Cézanne. While working for the WPA federal arts project in 1935, however, he met the painter Willem de Kooning. (Cézanne and de Kooning are both discussed elsewhere on What About Art?)

Tworkov subsequently abandoned his figurative style. After World War II he joined de Kooning and other artists, who together evolved Abstract Expressionism. By 1955 Tworkov revealed his mature style in works that are built up of countless diagonal strokes of paint, creating shimmering atmospheric fields of color. Later he replaced the multitude of flickering lines with broad strokes, such as seen in the work featured here.

From 1963 to 1969, Tworkov was chairman of the department of art at Yale University. Many of his writings about art were published posthumously in The Extreme of the Middle (2009), edited by Mira Schor.


Gertrude Greene: Purity of Form

Gertrude Greene - Construction 1946 - 1946 - Oil on wood and fiberboard - 40 1/8 x 30 1/8 x 5/8 in. (101.9 x 76.5 x 1.6 cm.) - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.American Abstract Expressionist Gertrude Glass Greene (1904-1956) was an abstract sculptor and painter from New York. Although she and her husband, artist Balcomb Greene (1904-1990), were heavily involved in political activism to promote mainstream acceptance of abstract art, Gertrude did not overtly express societal concerns in her art. However, she and Balcomb were founding members of the American Abstract Artists organization.

Gertrude was one of the earliest American artists to produce non-objective relief sculptures in the early 1930s. She synthesized Cubist and Russian Constructivists themes into her work, and was heavily influenced by what she saw as the “purity” of those two movements. By the 1940s, her work also revealed an interest in Mondrian and Neo-Plasticism. She produced her last sculpture in 1946. For the rest of her life she concentrated on abstract painting.


Alma Thomas: A Force in the Washington Color School

Alma Thomas, Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968, Acrylic on canvas - 58 7/8 x 50 in. - The Phillips Collection - Washington, D.C. (click photo for larger image)Alma Thomas (ca. 1891-1978) was an African-American Expressionist painter and art educator. She lived and worked primarily in Washington, D.C. Thomas began to paint seriously in 1960, when she retired from her thirty-eight year career as an art teacher in the public schools of Washington, D.C. In the years that followed she would come to be regarded as a major painter of the Washington Color Field School.

Thomas was in her eighth decade of life when she produced her most important works. Earliest to win acclaim was her series of Earth paintings—pure color abstractions of concentric circles that often suggest target paintings and stripes. Done in the late 1960s, these works bear references to rows and borders of flowers inspired by Washington's famed azaleas and cherry blossoms. The titles of her paintings often reflect this influence. In these canvases, brilliant shades of green, pale and deep blue, violet, deep red, light red, orange, and yellow are offset by white areas of untouched raw canvas, suggesting jewel-like Byzantine mosaics.

The works featured here is composed of a vertical grid of closely spaced stripes filled with bars of contrasting colors on a painted white ground. The acrylic paints are thinned almost to the point of transparency, retaining the luminous quality often associated with watercolor. The modulated white background functions in the same way the white of watercolor paper can glow from beneath the painted surface. Thomas sometimes produced as many as twenty watercolor studies before beginning a painting on canvas.