Thornton Dial: The Picasso of Alabama
Tandem exhibits spotlight one of the South’s most talented and overlooked artists
Fairly into his adult life, compelled purely by instinct, Thornton Dial began amassing found objects, joining them with one another. “Junk” is what his wife called the tinkering back then. But Dial kept at it. He left his industrial metal-working job in the early 1980s and began to focus on his art full-time. Eventually, Dial’s work came to be appreciated—by his wife, yes, but also by collectors and curators, and by art critics, who tend to situate him in the field of folk art.
Dial himself doesn’t fuss with a label. “I make art out of things I find,” the eighty-two-year-old artist says from his home in Bessemer, Alabama. “I see something in them and start from there. My art is about how ideas come from what we see.”
A prolific draftsman, painter, and sculptor, Dial is best known for his large mixed-media assemblages, which contain objects as ordinary as umbrellas, golf carts, and garbage. Each is gritty, dark, and teeming with ideas and symbolism, whether about race (Mickey Mouse—in blackface) or the events of 9/11.
Dial’s abstract expressionist style has drawn comparisons to geniuses of the genre, from Pablo Picasso to fellow Southerners Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. He’s now considered a master in his own right, with enough work to fill out two independent exhibits currently on display. Though coincidental, the overlapping timing underscores a renewed enthusiasm for Dial’s work.
Curated by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the first and larger show, Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, is the most extensive survey of the artist ever mounted. When it closes in January 2013, after stops at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Mint Museum in Charlotte, and, finally, the High Museum in Atlanta, the exhibit will have given people across the South unprecedented access to Dial’s work, including twenty-five never-before-seen pieces.
In contrast, the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina spotlights a brief point in the artist’s career, in a medium for which Dial is lesser known. Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, on display through July, is a collection of fifty drawings from 1990 and 1991. The concentrated, emotional works are characterized by bold color and images of fish, tigers, and women.
“How did he get the paper to sit still for this?” Bernard Herman, Ackland’s guest exhibition curator and the George B. Tindall Professor of American Studies at UNC, asks of the vibrant People Will Watch the Struggling Tiger (1991).
This is not the first time Dial has enjoyed sweeping national attention, but it is the first time in a long time. In 1993, 60 Minutes insinuated that Dial’s main patron, the Atlanta collector Bill Arnett, was exploiting the self-taught, uninitiated artists he championed. As Arnett fell from grace, Dial’s work wandered into the margins, resurfacing for a few exhibits, including the 2000 Whitney Biennial. But Dial stuck by Arnett, who continued to campaign for Dial and other so-called folk artists, including Lonnie Holley and the Gee’s Bend quilters. “People are finally starting to appreciate the greatness of Dial’s work,” says Matt Arnett, Bill’s son and Dial’s representative.
Dial is more philosophical about his legacy. “I want people to remember me as a man that made art to help people understand and see for themselves,” he says. “My art’s got to help us do what Dr. King wanted us to do. It’s got to help people overcome.”
For more information on the exhibits, go to imamuseum.org and ackland.org