Thornton Dial "Scrambling for Life" 1989, oil on canvas on board, 48 x 90 inches 


There is a compelling case to consider Thornton Dial (1923-2016) the most important African-American artist of his generation. Born in 1923, in Alabama’s Jim Crow South Mr. Dial traveled a long hardscrabble road to leave a very substantial mark. Dial deserves far more than the obsolete, narrow thinking that underpins such categories as “Folk”, “Outsider” or “Southern Vernacular” which, unfortunately, still serve as default labels to identify his work. Dial was characterized in his New York Times obituary “as a remarkable artist and storyteller, with a turbulent, expressionist manner that drew comparisons to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Anselm Kiefer.”1 He was all that and much more.

It should not be surprising that the same people living on the same ground that seeded jazz, blues, gospel, soul and rock would also have an accompanying visual art tradition. Thornton Dial as a boy watched his older second cousin take found or discarded materials to make objects of decoration for the house and yard. He and his friends made toys from the same materials. On that same ground Southern Black woman created a quilting tradition that carries visual traces back through Slavery to African tribal textiles. Black men in the South added their voice to build this American visual tradition. The art from this tradition was categorized as “Southern Vernacular”, “Folk” or “Outsider” art.

In Thornton Dial that “Southern Vernacular”, “Outsider”, “Folk” art tradition met a highly intelligent, virtuoso art talent who was a skilled metal worker from years of work at the Pullman factory in Birmingham Alabama.

There was also another fortuitous meeting for American art.  In 1987, fellow artist Lonnie Holley introduced Thornton Dial to collector, art dealer, curator, scholar and impresario William Arnett. This meeting was a game changer for both Mr. Dial and William Arnett.

“Mr. Dial, who, once he realized what Mr. Arnett was looking for, pulled a painted, welded-steel sculpture topped by a stylized steel turkey out of a turkey coop. ‘I knew I was witnessing something great coming out of that turkey coop,’ Mr. Arnett said in a statement issued by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.” 2

At that 1987 meeting Arnett sensed what an extraordinary talent he had come across in Thornton Dial. He knew he had found the visual arts equivalent to Muddy Waters or Lightning Hopkins. What he could not know is that he had also found its John Coltrane and Jackie Robinson.  

When Mr. Arnett met Mr. Dial, in 1987, there was already an established, though limited, market and museum system for art categorized as “Vernacular”, “Folk” or Outsider”.

In 1948, the French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the name and category “Art Brut”. Dubuffet along with Andre Breton and other European modernists founded the “Compagnie de l’Art Brut in a Parisian Villa lent them by publisher Gaston Gallimand. European avant-garde artists and writers such as Jean Cocteau, Claude Levi-Strauss, Francis Ponge, Tristan Tzara and Joan Miro were intellectual supporters of the “Compagnie de l’Art Brut”. Roger Cardinal further defined the category, in 1972, by providing the English translation of “Art Brut” with the release of his book “Outsider Art”. London, Studio Vista. The American Folk Art Museum NYC, founded in 1961, began the year 2016, with an exhibition entitled “Art Brut in America: The Invasion of Jean Dubuffet”.

“Art Brut”, “Outsider“, Folk”, “Vernacular”, “Naive”, “Primitive” “Indigenous” are code names for a catch all category that embraces a wide swath of art and craft that falls “outside” the established Modernist/Post-Modern canon of “high art”.

If you want an accurate measure of the power gap between the two categories, “Outsider” and “Modern/Post Modern”, just follow the recent travails of The American Folk Art Museum as it was over run by the expansion the Museum of Modern Art. A few architectural historians shed crocodile tears for the façade of The American Folk Art Museum but when push came to shove MOMA brushed AFAM off 53rd street “like a fly”.     

The terms “vernacular” and “outsider” have a built in second-class, pejorative slant. These terms do, however, describe some key points of Thornton Dial’s work. The term “vernacular” does capture the fact that Dial’s art comes from a visual art tradition that emerged spontaneously from black American roots deep in the rural South. There was no central organization, manifesto or academic curriculum. It was a grass roots art tradition, like jazz, blues or gospel, from the “folk” living in the “Deep South”. “Outsider” correctly describes that this was an independent tradition outside the American and European art system that flowed from Paris to New York.

This is what makes Thornton Dial so important. Consider what independent and outsider means.

Mr. Dial had no formal education beyond the third grade. He was isolated in the Jim Crow South. He never saw a Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh or Munch, or a Schwitters or a Duchamp yet his work stands in comparison with the best of that European/Modernist tradition and has many formal similarities. When his work is compared to Anselm Kiefer, De Kooning or Jackson Pollack it must be remembered that he traveled a route outside and independent of the route that embedded the African influence in Modernism when European modernists like Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi started to collect and reflect on the African art that turned up in Paris early in the 20th century. Dial’s modernism comes from African roots embedded deep in the American South. He is one of the purest voices of the African-American experience and one of the most powerful because his African “influence” is “in the blood”. Where else could it come from? Certainly not Paris! 

William Arnett was the first to fully recognized the coherence and depth of this “Southern Vernacular” tradition. He set out on a mission to collect, document and champion this important African-American contribution to the history of American Art. He collected a critical mass of work to make “Southern Vernacular Art” recognizable as an independent tradition. Arnett provided the scholarship and the financial support to enable the best of these artists to come to the attention of the museum and academic structure established to exhibit Modern and Contemporary art. What Arnett provided to Thornton Dial was an opportunity to enter into the “Big Show” of Modern and Contemporary art.

Arnett provided a stipend, money for materials and a place for Dial to live and work. In return Arnett became the major collector of his work becoming both his dealer, his patron and his advocate to the complicated commercial and museum support structure that had formed around Modern and Contemporary art since Picasso.

Arnett knew Dial had the virtuoso talent to cross beyond the “Negro Leagues” of “Vernacular” and shine in the “Big Show”. Mr. Dial, with an extraordinary body of work produced from the age of 64 until his death at 93 proved Arnett’s instincts were correct.

Art, however, is not baseball and there is a real rub. Art has a surfeit of umpires but no objective way to keep score, no defined strike zone. Statistics and economic algorithms don’t work for art. They can’t measure its value as art. Warning: do not mention this to the “art as an asset class” advisors or the social metrics bureaucrats. It makes them nervous.  

Mr. Dial is problematic because he is an exception that disproves the rule. Dial’s work challenges the academic straight-line theory of art history that underpins the Modern to Post-Modern narrative. Art is not technology. Duchamp does not render Velasquez obsolete as the CD rendered the 8-track.  

There is nothing in the basic assumptions of the “high art cannon” narrative that allows the Paris to New York flow to detour to Birmingham Alabama. How can Thornton Dial be comparable to Picasso, Schwitters, Pollack, or Kiefer? It is just not possible in that narrative. Dial fits in neither the time line nor the map. Who are you going to believe, the received “High Art” cannon or your lying eyes?

Mr. Dial provides an opportunity for art historians, curators and art theorists to deepen their scholarship on the relationship between Modernism and African Art. The influence of African Art is embedded in Modern Art. This is without question given Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,1907. The question of “How” deserves an exhibition that includes the African Diaspora and thinking well beyond such exhibitions as the 1984 MOMA “Primitivism in 20th Century Art”.