Update: Thomas’s Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. sold for $387,500 at Los Angeles Modern Auctions on Sunday, March 5, 2017–well above its $125,000 to $175,000 estimate. It also represents a world record at auction for the artist.
What you see: Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C., a 1969 oil on canvas by Alma Thomas.
Who was Alma Thomas? She was a member of the Washington Color School, a mid-20th century abstract art movement based in Washington, D.C. that also included Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland. Thomas was under-appreciated during her lifetime, but she was not unknown; in 1972, she became the first African-American woman to receive a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Thomas died in 1978, at the age of 86. Her art gained fresh attention when President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama displayed her works in the White House. Resurrection, a 1966 Thomas canvas that the Obamas chose for the White House family dining room, shares a mandala-like motif in common with Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C.
Why is Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. so compelling? “It has an intimacy that you only get when you contemplate a solitary blossom,” says Peter Loughrey, director of modern design and fine art at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA). “There’s something Zen and eastern about it. The progression of color draws you in to the center of the work. It really lends itself to a one-on-one, personal interaction.”
How does the painting call to mind Washington, D.C.? “It’s extremely abstracted, but it does reference the cherry blossoms that bloom every spring,” says Loughrey, who grew up in the nation’s capital. “It’s inescapable, that pinkish color in the background. It’s what you remember and walk away with.”
Why is the painting estimated at $125,000 to $175,000? Thomas wasn’t as prolific as other Washington Color School artists, and today’s collectors are keen to own her works. Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. has never gone to auction before; the consigner’s father bought it directly from the artist in 1969. He was a medical student at the time, and he paid her in installments. The lot includes a handwritten letter from Thomas to the proud young owner, telling him,”I hope you will love the painting. So many of my friends wanted to buy it.”
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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.