When Thornton Dial was given simultaneous shows at New York’s Museum of American Folk Art and New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1993, his work was a revelation: His densely painted accumulations on canvas, incorporating scraps of metal, wood, wire, rope, carpeting and clothes as well as found objects such as toys and plastic flowers, displayed an evocative, magisterial rawness. Critics saw elements of Robert Rauschenberg’s pioneering “Combines” in the works’ bursting-off-the-wall, sculptural quality, or of Anselm Kiefer’s emotionally and physically freighted, expressionistic tableaux. Their untamed expansiveness even invited comparisons to Jackson Pollock’s monumental drip canvases.
Yet Dial, an African-American and already over 60 at the time, was semiliterate and entirely self-taught, having worked for 30 years as a welder at the Pullman Standard railroad car factory in Bessemer, Alabama. He’d been discovered by folk art collector Bill Arnett, who helped bring to prominence a number of African-American “outsider” artists (including the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers). Though Dial, now 82, still lives and works in Bessemer, the outsider label fits him awkwardly. His works have sold for six figures, and he was included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, the ultimate insider’s showcase.
Now an exhibition organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art makes the strongest case yet for Dial as a major voice in the American contemporary art canon. It’s his largest show ever, with 70 works made over the past 20 years, including a selection of his drawings alongside his signature sculptures and large relief paintings, some spanning ten or 12 feet across. Highly personal, Dial’s work is often inspired by his response to social and political events. He addresses the Iraq War, civil rights, poverty and other struggles, sometimes darkly, sometimes optimistically—as in his 2004 painting Stars of Everything, where the stars are made from cleverly recycled paint cans. In an essay for the show’s catalogue, Joanne Cubbs describes that work as a self-portrait, with the artist as a bricoleur, one who “survives deprivations of all kinds through his resourcefulness and capacity to ‘make something out of nothing.’ ”
“Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial” is on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art February 25 through May 15. In 2012 it travels to the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, and in 2013 to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.