Noa Baker, University of Pennsylvania
If you haven’t yet made it to the modern art gallery in the PMA, you don’t have your priorities straight. The most eye-catching piece hanging this season is Alma Thomas’ Hydrangeas Spring Song, loud and brightly contrasting with the wintery air outside. As spectators in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we are undeniably familiar with other landscape paintings celebrating nature’s beauty. We probably have wandered around the rooms of expressionist paintings, admiring the suggestions of planes and vanishing points, such as in Monet’s hazy works of lily ponds and fields. Perhaps we have strolled through the different culture rooms and paused to see Chinese representations of flowers. Yet there is something different, more tangible and all-encompassing in Thomas’ work. The viewer is reminded of Matisse’s later cut out works in Thomas’s playful gestures, and the layered designs are reminiscent of Byzantine period mosaics or African textiles (philamuseum.org). Scattered into the intense imagery of the piece are repetitive English letters; Thomas’ references to other artists and accessible, universal imagery transcend the boundaries of time. This painting is not one to miss.
Taking up almost an entire wall, the piece is loud and assertive in its abstractness. Its blue monochromatic pallet contrasts with its expansive size and energetic, diverse marks that invite the viewer’s eyes to continue roving around the canvas. Each nuance of stroke only adds depth to this puzzle of a piece, directing the viewer to examine detail upon detail in Thomas’ expressive and whimsical work. At one point, a cluster of seemingly random shapes and strokes, and beyond, perhaps a path along the garden, or simply a relief upon which the eye can rest before continuing to pursue the work. The longer one gazes, the more dynamic the piece becomes. The abstract shapes and marks littering the canvas at once achieve their own goal of representing the renewal of springtime, while simultaneously referencing previous historical periods and art styles. If you can, spend a few minutes simply sitting in front of it. Your eyes will not get bored and wander to another painting, or drift longingly to your watch. This painting is a celebration of simply looking. It is delicious in its busyness.
Thomas’ work references different points of history, where nature was less tamed. Her eclectic and seemingly random shapes remind the viewer of the tiles of ancient Byzantine mosaics or the stitching of African textiles. Perhaps these allusions were unintentional, but as viewers we can interpret this as commentary on the smallness of man in the face of nature. Hydrangeas Spring Song suggests that perhaps Byzantine and African artists too were inspired by the vastness of the nature of their time period, similar to what Thomas saw in her own 20st century garden. Her art is a mode of time travel, hosting conversations with artists that existed centuries before.
Alma Thomas’s work is also reminiscent of more current artists—Matisse in particular comes to mind. The blue in her work is reminiscent of Matisse’s blue nudes, but the playful style and nature imagery in Hydrangeas Spring Song speaks more directly to Matisse’s paper cut outs. Matisse, too, drew inspiration form the natural world. Perhaps Thomas’s fixation with Matisse arose from their similarities as artists when the works were created—Matisse created his paper cut outs after an invasive operation in the last fourteen years of his life and worked from a wheel chair (henri-matisse.net); Thomas was well into her eighties and suffering from crippling arthritis when she painted this work. Both pieces celebrate the renewal of life, even in the twilight of the artists’ own. Both use repetitive marks not to monotonize, but emphasize, the beauty and whimsy of nature and life itself.
Repetition is not the only tool Thomas employs to connect with her viewers; her work is infused with symbols that go beyond the scope of art history and into daily life. Her work incorporates English letters, making the canvas feel accessible and tangible even to the least educated viewer. The letters are not used as letters, but simply stand as aesthetic shapes, their edges contrasting pleasantly to the waviness of her other strokes. Though Thomas’s work is somewhat representational, (we know because of her descriptive title) Thomas uses English letters in her own version of Steinberg’s non-representational “letting the world in again,” (Steinberg, 1972, 90) originally used to describe Rauschenberg’s work. Yet the world Thomas lets in is not Steinberg’s world of high art critics and intellectual art historians who understood Rauschenberg’s flatbed picture plane as abstract art for the technological age (Steinberg, 1972, 88). Instead, by using universal imagery such as letters, Thomas invites the casual viewer into her work. Nature, she seems to say, should not be inaccessible. Steinberg’s phrase “letting the world in again” refers to Rauschenberg’s departure from not only representational work, but the head-to-toe perspective of art in general, and utilizing the environment as a medium in art. But I disagree with this narrow definition—Thomas’ work “lets the world in” by incorporating semi- representational forms that evoke both history and tangible, legible imagery. Refreshingly, this is not a modern art piece that excludes the general public. Hers is a piece that is easily understandable and relatable, incorporating universal imagery to depict her vibrantly blue abstract hydrangea garden.
Perhaps Thomas’ “letting the world in again” is more akin to Johns’ version of the phrase. Johns, like Rauschenberg, sometimes uses the environment as a medium in his work (Steinberg, 1972, 21). But his work is often more subtle, utilizing cultural symbols such as the American flag, rather than ready-mades, to evoke emotional responses from his viewers (Steinberg, 1972, 22). The images themselves are not necessarily dramatic, rather, our associations with the images as symbols (of freedom, nationalism, etc.) make the works powerful. So too, our associations with literacy and language play into Thomas’ piece. It is not the physical world that she uses as media; rather, it is our associations with her imagery that adds power and depth to the work. Her piece invites the casual viewer into the conversation.
Thomas’ Hydrangea Spring Song is complex and multi-layered, rich with references to nature and other historical time periods. Yet Thomas’ main message is easy to understand after analyzing her work: nature’s vastness is not only itself beautiful, but the source off all other beauty. Nature inspired the ancient Byzantine and African art. Nature is our host—we speak in it, we live in it, cultivate it in our gardens. Yet nature existed before us, and will continue long after Thomas, Matisse, and we spectators have passed. Thomas’ work leaves the viewer with a sense of hopefulness. So get on over to Philadelphia—you won’t regret it.
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cover photo credit – Philadelphia Museum of Art website http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/128105.html