Profile: Thornton Dial (1928-2016)

Thornton Dial was a pioneering African-American artist who came to prominence in the late 1980s. Dial’s body of work exhibits formal variety through 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. Dial’s works are widely held in American museums; ten of Dial’s works were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014.


Thornton Dial was born in 1928 to a teenage mother, Mattie Bell, on a former cotton plantation in Emelle, Alabama, where relatives in his extended family worked as sharecroppers. 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 influenced him. Dial grew up in poverty and without the presence of his father.

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

His principal place of employment was as a metalworker at the Pullman Standard Plant in Bessemer, Alabama, which made railroad cars. The plant 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 Thornton Dial met Lonnie Holley, an artist 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. 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.

Dial’s work has been continually heralded in international cultural institutions and large survey exhibitions, such as the 2000 Whitney Biennial. Over time, the context for Dial’s work has expanded to showcase the political and social responsiveness of his artwork, expressing “ideas about black history, slavery, racial discrimination, urban and rural poverty, industrial or environmental collapse, and spiritual salvation”.  Since 2011 the language surrounding Dial’s artwork and practice has shifted. Most recently Alex Greenberger of ARTnews said: “Thornton Dial has been termed an outsider artist, a vernacular artist, and a folk artist—but any of those labels might be a misnomer, since the late painter’s work has been gradually moving into the mainstream art world’s view in the past few years.”


Thornton Dial’s work addresses American sociopolitical exigencies such as war, racism, bigotry and homelessness. He draws attention to these themes using the overlooked and under-considered material artifacts of everyday American life. Combining paint and found materials, Dial constructs large-scale assemblages with cast-away objects ranging from rope to bones to buckets. Works such as Black Walk and The Blood of Hard Times, for example, use corrugated tin and other dilapidated pieces of metal to refer to the destitute bodies and vernacular architecture of the rural South.  Dial invokes the history of the American rural South throughout much of his work.

The symbol of the tiger is also a primary visual trope in Thornton Dial’s oeuvre. Artist and African-American art historian David C. Driskell explained Dial’s use of the tiger as an allegory for survival and an implicit reference to the struggle for civil rights in the United States.

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 should not be pigeon-holed into the narrowly-defined category of “outsider art”:

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… 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.

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.”

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.”

Two of Dial’s major works were included in a March 2016 gift to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts by the president of its board of trustees, William A. Royall, and his wife, Pam. Those works are the iconic, “Old Uncle Buck (The Negro Got to Find Out What’s Going On in the United States),” from 2002; and the monumental 2005 sculpture, “Freedom Cloth.”

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta had a memorial exhibition, on view February 13 to May 1, 2016, that presented a selection of Dial’s exuberant drawings and symbolically rich paintings that the Museum has collected over the past twenty years. In April 2016 Marianne Boesky Gallery presented “We All Live Under the Same Old Flag”, a show dedicated to Dial since his death. Artsy, the online industry publication, gave the Dial show at Marianne, “We All Live Under the Same Old Flag”, top billing among 15 “blockbuster”, “must-see” gallery exhibitions on display during the month of May.

In 2018, David Lewis Gallery presented “Mr. Dial’s America,” a survey of Thornton Dial’s work from 1989 – 2011. The show garnered significant press, including a review from the editors of ARTnews, who praised the artist’s diverse oeuvre of “early self-portraits as well as paintings treating Jim Crow–era America and the struggle for civil rights, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the site of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks.” Writing of the show in the New York Times, Roberta Smith commends “Dial’s ability to commandeer any material into a painting,” and called the works “fiercely formal in ways that connect to Jackson Pollock’s allover fields of dripped paint and the object paintings of Anselm Kiefer and Julian Schnabel.”

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