From Rags to… Found Boots, Gloves and Soda Cans: The Richness of Thornton Dial
This dispatch from 2011 is offered here as a tribute to the artist who passed away recently
Report from… New Orleans
Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial at the New Orleans Museum of Art
February 26 to May 15, 2011
One Collins Diboll Circle, City Park
New Orleans, (504) 658-4100
At his best, Thornton Dial is a great artist. Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together (2003), a massive construction of enamel and spray paint on canvas on wood and mattress coils, chicken wire, clothing, can lids, found metal, plastic twine, wire, Splash Zone compound stands comparison with Jasper Johns’ flags. First Butterflies (2002), constructed of clothing, plastic, carpet, oil, enamel and spray paint on canvas on wood, can legitimately to be set alongside the classic color field paintings of Larry Poons. The exquisite Clouds Moving in the Sky, We Wake Up in Darkness and Look for Daylight (2006), built of denim pants fabric canvas scraps, staples, industrial plastic and enamel on canvas on wood can justly be hung alongside Robert Rauschenberg’s collages. And, as Thomas McEveilley has noted, Dial’s constructions with sacred themes, — Crosses to Bear (Armageddon) (2001-2004) is a good one — are worth comparing without any hesitation or apologies to Anselm Kiefer’s best works.
As the catalogue explains, Dial, born dirt poor in Alabama, September 10, 1928, has never been in an art school and has never studied art history; in fact, he is illiterate. That he worked for thirty years in a rail car manufacturing company explains his mastery of construction techniques, but it doesn’t elucidate how he came to make large paintings, which are so obviously related to the art of mainline late modernism. And while the catalogue provides a great deal of useful background information, it fails to treat him seriously as an artist who deserves to be judged alongside his peers whom I have named, by – instead — treating him as a black artist, providing too much information about his obviously heroic status as an outsider struggling with the sad history of Southern racism. He is linked, for instance, to fellow Alabamian jazz musician Sun Ra and the compared with James Brown. It would be better, I think, to provide a balanced account of his artistic career, without focusing entirely upon the kind of sociological concerns that mostly dominate the catalogue essays. As it is, we don’t really learn how a man from such a harsh background became a major visual artist, with a utopian religious vision.
Dial is not always at his best. To my eye, the obviously anecdotal painting, Trophies (Doll Factory) (2000) with its Barbie dolls, stuffed animals and plastic toys, is too literal-minded to inspire conviction. And while Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City (2005), which includes a doormat, wood doors and a bed frameamong its materials, with its seemingly beautiful façade and ugly back, is a potent comment on American racial divisions—“peckerwood” is derogatory black Southern slang for white people—it’s more of a manifesto than a fully convincing visual work of art. I can take or leave the drawings, which are delicate,often erotic, and certainly Picassoesque in their fascinating with female body parts. But this is nitpicking points. At his best he is a world-class artist.
Originating at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, this exhibition continues on to the Mint Museum, in Charlotte North Carolina and the High Museum. It is a singular misfortune, and a sad commentary on the limits of our present art world thinking that this exalted exhibition will not appear in New York, in Chicago or in California’s major museums.