Thornton Dial

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Thornton Dial was born in 1928 in Emelle, Alabama. Dial is a self-taught artist who came to prominence in the United States in the late 1980s. Dial’s body of work exhibits astonishing formal variety through powerfully expressive, densely composed assemblages of found materials, often executed on a monumental scale. His range of subjects embraces a broad sweep of history, from human rights to natural disasters and current events.


Thornton Dial was born to Mattie Bell in 1928 in Emelle, Alabama. He lived with his mother until he was around three when Dial and his half-brother Arthur moved in with their second cousin, Buddy Jake Dial, who was a farmer. When Thornton moved in with Buddy Jake, he farmed and learned about the sculptures that Buddy Jake made from items lying around the yard, an experience that greatly influenced him.[1] Dial grew up in poverty and without the presence of his father. [2]

In 1940, Dial moved to Bessemer, Alabama. When he arrived in Bessemer, he noticed the art along the way in people's yard and was amazed at the level of craft exhibited.[3] He married Clara Mae Murrow in 1951. They have five children, one of which died of cerebral palsy. The late artist Ronald Lockett was his cousin.[2]

His principal place of employment was the Pullman Company in Bessemer, Alabama, until the company closed its doors in 1981. After the Pullman factory shut down, Dial began to dedicate himself to his art for his own pleasure. In 1987, he was introduced to Bill Arnett, a local art collector of great influence who brought Dial's work to public attention.[4]

Dial has lived, worked, and created art in Alabama for his entire life. He continues to create works of art and shows them throughout the United States.

Dial and Arnett[edit]

Thornton Dial met another self-taught artist Lonnie Holley, who introduced Dial to Atlanta collector and art historian William Arnett. Arnett, whose art historical interests had now focused on African-American vernacular art and artists, brought Dial's work to national prominence. The art historian has also brought Lonnie Holley, the Gee's Bend Quilters and many others to the attention of the United States.[5] Arnett, with Jane Fonda also helped to create a publishing company, in 1996, along with his sons Paul and Matt. He is also the founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation and documentation of African American art from the Deep South that works in coordination with leading museums and scholars to produce groundbreaking exhibitions and publications using its extensive holdings.


Dial's work addresses urgent issues in the realm of history and politics in the United States, such as war, racism, bigotry and homelessness. He constructs large-scale assemblages using cast-away objects, anything from rope to bones to buckets. Some of his compositions are delicate drawings whilst others are dramatic and dark paintings which tend to be large-scale with strong use of colour and fluid forms.[6] Combining paint and found materials Dial weaves together an interpretation of history and politics in the United States. David C. Driskell, an artist and art historian of African American art, points to one of Dial's symbolic creatures, the tiger. The Tiger represents the struggle to survive through difficult events and eventually the tiger symbolizes the African American struggle to obtain equal rights in the United States.[7]

In 2011, Dial's work was profiled in a four-page story in Time Magazine, where art and architecture critic Richard Lacayo argued that Dial's work belongs to the category of art and should not be pigeon-holed into narrowly defined categories:

"Dial's work has sometimes been described as "outsider art", a term that attempts to cover the product of everyone from naive painters like Grandma Moses to institutionalized lost souls like Martín Ramírez and full-bore obsessives like Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor who spent a lifetime secretly producing a private fantasia of little girls in peril. But if there's one lesson to take away from "Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial," a triumphant new retrospective at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, it's that Dial, 82, doesn't belong within even the broad confines of that category....What he does can be discussed as art, just art, no surplus notions of outsiderness required....And not just that, but some of the most assured, delightful and powerful art around."[8]

Michael Kimmelman, from the New York Times, called Dial "preternaturally gifted," and said he looks "dumfoundingly adept to some of us because his energy and fluent line, abstracted in maelstroms of color, easily call to mind Pollock and de Kooning,"[9] while New York Times reporter Carol Kino described Dial's "work's look, ambition, and obvious intellectual reach hew[ing] closely to that of many other modern and contemporary masters, from Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg to Jean-Michel Basquiat."[10]

In 1993, Dial's work was the subject of a large exhibition that was presented simultaneously at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the American Folk Art Museum in New York. In 2000, the artist's work was included in the Whitney Biennial, and in 2005-06, the Museum of Fine Art; Houston presented a major exhibition entitled "Thornton Dial in the 21st Century". Dial's works can be found in many notable public and private collections, including those of, among other institutions, the High Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the American Folk Art Museum, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; and the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

On November 24, 2014, The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that 57 works by contemporary African American artists from the Southern United States--including 10 works by Dial--were donated to the Museum by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from its William S. Arnett Collection. An exhibition devoted to the gift will take place at the Metropolitan Museum in fall 2016.

As Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum, described the gift, “From Thornton Dial’s magisterial constructions to the emblematic compositions by the Gee’s Bend quilters from the 1930s onwards, this extraordinary group of works contributes immeasurably to the Museum’s representation of works by contemporary American artists and augments on a historic scale its holdings of contemporary art.” [11]


Dial's work has been exhibited throughout the United States since 1990.


2011-13 Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, Indianapolis Museum of Art (organizing museum); New Orleans Museum of Art, The Mint Museum, and the High Museum of Art

2012-13 Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (organizing museum); Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont, Burlington; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama; and the Knoxville Museum of Art, Tennessee.

2005 Thornton Dial in the 21st Century, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

2002-04 In the Spirit of Martin, Smithsonian Institution

2000 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1998 Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology, Philadelphia Museum

1993 Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; American Folk Art Museum, New York; American Center, Paris


2013 Thornton Dial: Daybreak, Bill Lowe Gallery, Atlanta

2012 Thornton Dial: Viewpoint of the Foundry Man, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York

2012 The Art of Thornton Dial, Art6 Gallery, Richmond.

2011 All Folked Up, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York

2011 Thornton Dial: The Beginning of Days, Bill Lowe Gallery, Atlanta

 The Armory Show, Andrew Edlin Gallery

1999 Thornton Dial: His Spoken Dreams, Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York

1992 Thornton Dial: Works on Paper, Luise Ross Gallery, New York

1991 Thornton Dial, Sr.: Works on Paper, Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York

1990 Thornton Dial: Strategy of the World, Southern Queens Park Association/African-American Hall of Fame, Jamaica, New York

 Thornton Dial, Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta

 Thornton Dial: Ladies of the United States, Library Art Gallery, Kennesaw State College, Marietta, Georgia Gallery 721, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 1995 - 2012

Public Collections[edit]

Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, NC

American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY

Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL

High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.

Indianapolis Museum of Art Indianapolis, IN

Indiana University Art Museum Bloomington, IN

Intuit, Chicago, IL

Milwaukee Art Museum Milwaukee, WI

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX

New Orleans Museum of Art New Orleans, LA

Philadelphia Museum of Art Philadelphia, PA

Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, IL

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

Whitney Museum of American Art New York, NY

Virginia Union University Richmond, VA

Public art[edit]

The Bridge (sculpture) (1997), Atlanta, GA

Further reading[edit]

Selected Publications[edit]

Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, Ackland Art Museum and UNC Press (2012)

Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, catalog, Prestel (2011)

"Outsider Art Sourcebook", Raw Vision (2009)

Thornton Dial in the 21st Century, catalog, Tinwood (2005)

American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum, catalog (2001)

Souls Grown Deep, Volumes 1 & 2, Arnett et al. (2000 & 2001)

Passionate Visions of the American South, Self Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present, New Orleans Museum of Art (1993)

American Self-Taught, Maresca & Ricco (1993)

Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger, Baraka & McEvilly (1993)

20th Century American Folk, Self-Taught, and Outsider Art, Neal-Schuman Publishers (1993)

Museum of Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists, Abbeville Press (1990)

Raw Vision Issue 74, Cara Zimmerman (2011)


Kuspit, Donald, Review, Art Forum, Summer 2011

Wilkin, Karen, "Biography, History, Self-Evident Beauty", The Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2011

Doran, Anne, Review, Time Out New York, April 14–20, 2011

Review, The New Yorker, April 11, 2011

Lacayo, Richard, "Outside the Lines", Time, March 14, 2011

Kino, Carol, "Letting His Life's Work Do the Talking", New York Times, February 20, 2011

Gómez, Edward M., "On the Border", Art & Antiques Magazine, February 2011

Jones, Phillip March, "Thornton Dial, Sr.", Whitehot Magazine, February 2010

Giovanni, Nikki; Chassman, Gary Miles; Leonard, Walter, "In the Spirit of Martin", Tinwood Books 2002

Smith, Dinitia, "Bits, Pieces and a Drive To Turn Them Into Art," New York Times, February 5, 1997

Smith, Roberta, "A Young Style for an Old Story," New York Times, December 19, 1993

Scott, Sue, "Thornton Dial [exhibition review]," ARTnews 92, April 1993

Lloyd, Ann Wilson, "Thornton Dial at Luise Ross," Art in America, May 1993

Kuspit, Donald, "The Appropriation of Marginal Art in the 1980s," American Art, Winter/Spring 1991

Kroll, Jack, "The Outsiders Are In: American Folk Artists Move into the World of Money and Fame," Newsweek, December 2, 1987

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Arnett, William, The Road from Emelle, "Thornton Dial in the 21st Century", Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2005, p. 10.
  2. ^ a b Smith, Dinitia (1997-02-05). "Bits, Pieces and a Drive To Turn Them Into Art". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-06-12. 
  3. ^ Arnett, William, The Road from Emelle, "Thornton Dial in the 21st Century", Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2005, p. 22.
  4. ^ Sellman, James "Truth and Consequences: The 25-Year Friendship of Thornton Dial and Bill Arnett", The Folk Art Messenger, Volume 22, No. 3, Spring/Summer 2011.
  5. ^ "Souls Grown Deep Foundation". 
  6. ^ Outsider Art Sourcebook, ed. John Maizels, Raw Vision, Watford, 2009, p. 65.
  7. ^ Driskell, David C., "Giving Into the Visionary Dream", Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, New York: Prestel Publishing, 2011, p. 17.
  8. ^ Richard Lacayo, "Outside The Lines," Time Magazine, March 14, 2011, accessed September 29, 2011.
  9. ^ Michael Kimmelman, "By Whatever Name, Easier to Like," New York Times, February 14, 1997, accessed September 29, 2011.
  10. ^ Carol Kino, "Let His Life's Work Do the Talking," New York Times, February 17, 2012, accessed September 29, 2013.
  11. ^