Letting His Life's Work Do the Talking

by Carol Kino for NEW YORK TIMES

THORNTON DIAL has never been one for talking much about his artwork. Ask him what inspires his monumental assemblages, made from twisted metal, tree branches, cloth, plastic toys, animal bones and all manner of found materials, and he is likely to respond tersely, as he did while showing me around his studio here one bone-chilling day last month.

“I mostly pick up stuff,” he said. “I start on a picture when I get a whole lot of stuff together. And then I look at the piece and think about life.”

Now 82, Mr. Dial has had a lot of life to think about - especially over the last year, during which he endured hernia surgery, pneumonia, a stroke and heart problems. Only recently did he return to making art in this cold and cavernous space at the back of Dial Metal Patterns, a fabrication shop run by his children. As he huddled in a chair, looking frail and slightly wary, his three sons hovered about him protectively.

For one painting-like piece, made on canvas-covered plywood, Mr. Dial had used branches, metal, clothing, paint and a pair of work boots to create a lean figure fording through a tall jungle. “That’s Obama,” he said. “I show the struggle he got through without getting bit.”

Another, saturated with powdery white pigment, presented a baby doll nested in a field of cotton-covered twigs and twisted steel. A rope encircled the doll’s neck, suggesting a noose or an umbilical cord. “That’s the way they come,” Mr. Dial said, chuckling, when asked about the rope’s significance. “You probably see many things in my art if you’re looking at it right.”

Because Mr. Dial is self-taught and illiterate, he has generally been classified as a folk or outsider artist. But that pigeonhole has long rankled his admirers, because his work’s look, ambition, and obvious intellectual reach hew so closely to that of many other modern and contemporary masters, from Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg to Jean-Michel Basquiat. “If anybody else had created a major opus of this scope,” said Joanne Cubbs, an adjunct curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, “he or she would be recognized as a major force in the art world. Instead Dial struggles at the margins.”

But his marginalization may not last much longer. Mr. Dial’s first career retrospective, “ Hard Truths,” opens at the museum in Indianapolis on Friday. And on March 19 the Andrew Edlin Gallery in Chelsea will open Mr. Dial’s first solo gallery show in New York in 11 years. “This feels like the moment when the cultural world is ready to understand Mr. Dial and perhaps to embrace him,” said Ms. Cubbs, who organized the museum survey.

That exhibition, which runs through Sept. 18 before traveling to New Orleans; Charlotte, N.C.; and Atlanta, includes examples from many different periods, starting with the pictures that made Mr. Dial’s name in the early ’90s, when he used the tiger to symbolize the struggles and triumphs of African-American life. He has continued to invoke the specter of slavery, in pieces like “High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man),” a large 2002 construction in which a grinning Mickey Mouse toy is chained to the hull of a ship.

The show also includes work he made in response to the 2001 World Trade Center attack and the gulf war: sculptures like the monumental “Crosses to Bear (Armageddon),” dated 2001-4, in which a nine-foot-high expanse of rusty iron crosses is festooned with rag and rubber detritus; and paintings that appear to be made from torn and bloodied American flags, like “Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together” (2003).

“The power and clarity of his work measures up to any artist of any color in the last decades,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, the director of the museum, noting the works’ superficial resemblance to those by Julian Schnabel and Anselm Kiefer. “But unlike those figures this work is imbued with an experiential dimension. For Dial, politics is personal.”

Certainly Mr. Dial has one of the more amazing art historical biographies on record. Although he had little formal schooling, he developed an intimate acquaintance with postmodernist art-making materials early in life.

Born in 1928 in a cornfield in the tiny rural hamlet Emelle, Ala., and raised by his great-grandmother, Mr. Dial went to work as soon as he could walk, harvesting sweet potatoes and corn, and gathering twigs and “the stuff my great-grandmother needed to make fire,” he said. After her death Mr. Dial and his younger half brother went to live with another relative in Bessemer, a small industrial town, where he hauled ice, poured concrete, raised cattle, did carpentry and laid bricks, among other things, until he found employment as a metalworker at the local Pullman-Standard boxcar factory. He worked there on and off until it closed in 1981.

All the while — throughout his long marriage to Clara Mae Murrow, who died in 2005, and the birth of his five children (one daughter died at 28 from cerebral palsy) — Mr. Dial was quietly observing and honing his skills. “I was just watching people that make stuff,” he said. “I watch everything.”

He was also making things himself, from the functional, like fishing nets and lures, chimneys, bricks, funerary monuments, furniture and houses (“I made a whole lot of them and tore them down,” Mr. Dial said) to the less obviously useful, like animal sculptures made from tin and tree branches or plastic bread wrappers, or a slave ship built from metal and wood. As his sons recalled, during another interview in the shop office with nearly a dozen relatives and family friends in attendance, Mr. Dial would come home from work, watch the evening news, do some farming out back with his children and then set to work making things again.

Even with something ostensibly practical like a lure, “it was odd, the way he took his time and painted them and stuff like that,” his son Richard said. “Whatever he worked on had to be different from somebody else.” Mr. Dial was so prolific, he added, that his wife often made the boys tidy up by burying his old work in the yard. (Mr. Dial has said in the past that he sometimes hid his work himself because he feared the attention it might attract during the Jim Crow years.)

Life changed dramatically for Mr. Dial in the late ‘80s, when he was discovered by William Arnett, a wealthy white Atlanta collector who was obsessively scouring the South for unheralded African-American work. (Among his discoveries are the Gee’s Bend quilters, whose work toured to 12 museums in a widely lauded show.)

Mr. Arnett was smitten from the start. “Dial possessed a combination of pride, dignity and determination, along with a wry sense of humor,” he wrote in an e-mail. “His earliest artworks demonstrated an unlimited creative imagination. All he lacked was encouragement and opportunity.”

For Mr. Dial the meeting was transformative. “He didn’t have to bury stuff anymore,” his son said, “because Mr. Arnett would give him money for things, and Daddy was kind of fascinated. There was a point where he said, ‘Ya’ll been laughing at me, but look at what the man just paid me for doing this.’ ”

Or, as Mr. Dial put it, “That’s the time I did start thinking about art.”

Mr. Arnett gave him a monthly stipend in exchange for right of first refusal, which allowed Mr. Dial to make art full time. Mr. Arnett visited frequently, and introduced Mr. Dial to curators and other collectors, including Jane Fonda, who remains a major supporter. He also set the wheels in motion for Mr. Dial’s first museum exhibition, “Image of the Tiger.” Organized by the critic Thomas McEvilley, it opened at two New York institutions, the Museum of American Folk Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, in November 1993. The show seemed poised “to break down the border between outside and inside,” Mr. McEvilley said. Critically it was successful: “He has a genuine talent that he brandishes fearlessly,” Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times. But soon after the opening “60 Minutes” ran a segment that suggested Mr. Arnett was exploiting the folk artists whose work he had championed, particularly Mr. Dial. Suddenly “my show died on the vine,” Mr. McEvilley said. And so did several other major exhibitions of Mr. Dial’s art in the works.

Since then, although Mr. Dial has exhibited in galleries and been included in many group outsider art shows, as well as the 2000 Whitney Biennial, he has had only one other major museum solo exhibition, “Thornton Dial in the 21st Century,” at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in 2005. (Mr. Dial, who remains close to Mr. Arnett, memorialized the debacle with the 2003 self-portrait assemblage “Strange Fruit: Channel 42”: it involves an eyeless scarecrow-like creature wearing a bloody tie strung up from a television antenna.) Yet the event had one positive effect on Mr. Dial, Ms. Cubbs said: “It made him re-evaluate what the relationship would be between his art and its audience, and his work became more complex and powerful.”

How did he do that? Mr. Dial isn’t telling. “I remember all of my art,” he said, “but I can’t talk about all of it, because I did it 20 or 30 years ago. You ain’t going to think about all you done did in life either.”

But pressed to explain why he makes art in the first place, he finally found an answer: “I make it for people to love.”

February 17 2011

Outside the lines

by Richard Lacayo for TIME Magazine

American Artists don't have to be licensed - a good thing, that - but they do tend to be credentialed. The art world is bristling with degrees from Yale and Cal Arts and hundreds of other academies. In that world, Thornton Dial stands out. He has no formal training and very little schooling of any kind. To be blunt, he can't read or write. But sometime during his long years as a metalworker in Alabama, he turned to making what he at first simply called "things," because it would be a long time before he, or anybody else, realized that those things are better described as art. And not just that, but some of the most assured, delightful and powerful art around.

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. The show — which is on view in Indianapolis through Sept. 18, then travels to New Orleans; Charlotte, N.C.; and Atlanta — is a sign that after more than two decades in which his work has settled gradually into the collections of a number of major museums, he may at last be achieving a kind of cultural escape velocity. What he does can be discussed as art, just art, no surplus notions of outsiderness required.

When I asked Dial recently what led him to make his work in the first place, he gave a sideways answer: "I put it out there for somebody to like." People do. People will.

Up, Up and Away
This is not to say Dial's backstory won't always set him apart from other prominent African-American artists like Martin Puryear, Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson, who are university- and art-school-educated. He was born in 1928 in a cornfield in rural Sumter County, Alabama. His mother, an unwed teenager from a sharecropper family, gave him up to be raised by female relatives. Working in the fields by the age of 6, Dial got little in the way of a formal education. When he left school for good at the age of 12, he was still in the third grade.

It was at about that time, after the death of his great-grandmother, that Dial and his younger half brother went to live with another relative in Bessemer, a midsize industrial town near Birmingham. He worked there in a succession of jobs until he found the one he would hold for years, as a metalworker with the Pullman railway-car company. After starting a family of his own, he began to produce "things" of all kinds at home. Some were practical, like fishing gear, grave markers, decorative fences and furniture. Some were more explicitly art objects, like animal sculptures. All were made with scavenged materials: rope, metal, plastic, tin. "I started picking up stuff," he says. "Beer cans, plastic bottles. I was making stuff to sell." He made a lot of it — until it was piling up everywhere in the house he shared with his wife Clara Mae Murrow and their five children. "My wife told me, If you don't get this junk out of the house, I'm going to leave you," he says.

In 1981 the Pullman plant shut down, and Dial, in his early 50s, found himself out of a job. But as his son Richard says, "It was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. He kept getting up at 7, going into the backyard and making something." Another self-taught artist, Lonnie Holley, brought Dial to the attention of Will Arnett, a white Atlanta-based collector focused on the work of vernacular Southern black artists. Dial credits Arnett with making him think of himself as an artist, helping his work find its way into the collections of people like Jane Fonda and launching him into public view.

Sometimes it was too public. In November 1993, when Dial was the subject of two simultaneous one-man museum shows in New York City, Morley Safer did a segment on 60 Minutes that asked whether Arnett had questionable financial dealings with the artists he collected. Dial, who appeared on camera briefly, felt that Safer's questions for him were condescending and that the broadcast led museums and collectors to shy away from his work at the very moment it had begun to take off. If it did, the Indianapolis show — drawn largely from the collection of Arnett's Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which has right of first refusal on Dial's work - is a sign that momentum is back in his favor

Though he makes work on paper — drawings and watercolors with a gleeful, springing line, like African Athlete — Dial's main medium is assemblage, mostly three-dimensional wall pieces made by gluing or welding found materials and painting over and under them. What that means is that he arrived on his own at a practice that, in terms of conventional art history, had its origins a century ago in the welded sculptures of Picasso and Georges Braque and the collages of Kurt Schwitters, then came back strongly after World War II, when Joseph Cornell, David Smith, Isamu Noguchi, Louise Nevelson and Cy Twombly all took it up. No one went at assemblage with more devilish abandon than Robert Rauschenberg, Dial's near contemporary, whose combines of the 1950s and '60s could make a persuasive ménage à trois out of a stuffed goat, a rubber tire and a tennis ball.

When Dial came to assemblage, he was unaware of any of this history. He had never set foot in a museum. What he had by way of guidance were the traditions of African-American folk art all around him, in which combining scrap-heap materials was standard practice long before Picasso ever picked up a blowtorch. In the show's catalog, Joanne Cubbs, the curator who organized "Hard Truths," reminds us that just like Dial, Rauschenberg, who grew up in the largely black town of Port Arthur, Texas, was influenced by the "yardshow" assemblages he saw as a boy. The memory banks of small-town African America, yardshows were pieced together from things discarded without losing their residue of personal history, the kind from which the larger varieties of history are built.

History is very much the point here. Dial spent most of his life in an Alabama that was brutally segregated, a battleground of the civil rights movement where the Klan was a force to be reckoned with and Governor George Wallace was the hero of diehards everywhere. Dial's work is a memory bank too, an attempt to come to grips with the struggles of black people over the years and the predicaments and ragged glories of American life generally.

With that as his goal, Dial wants his art to be legible without being obvious. So he operates by developing images with dense but graspable layers of reference. In some works, he lets tigers symbolize the strategies black men and women use to get by. But those coiled, slinky cats may turn out to be made from carpet remnants — a reminder that for all their wiles, these beasts get stepped on. In The Last Day of Martin Luther King, from 1992, the tiger appears again, as a stand-in for King, but now it's made from painted-over mop strings, so it simultaneously refers to the cleanup work to which so many African Americans were restricted and to King's great historical task of cleansing the stain of racism from American life.

When Dial is at his best, he even manages to inject new life into one of the most clichéd images of postwar art. Mickey Mouse, who usually gets dragged into service as a symbol of the trivial strain in American culture, does much more complicated double duty in High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man). A stuffed Mickey doll, the white portions of its face smeared in black, hangs in chains in the midst of a wire-and-rod construction meant to signify a slave ship with goat-hide sails. With one compact gesture, Dial invokes the atrocity of the Atlantic slave trade and the minstrel-show culture the descendants of those slaves adopted to entertain and outwit their oppressors. It would all be funny if the laughs didn't come so hard.

In a piece like that, Dial claims a place within the line of history painters stretching back to the 18th and 19th centuries. He doesn't try to call on their visual high rhetoric — who would anymore? — but at the same time, there's very little in his work you could call folkloric. There's no easy charm, no appeal to whatever is left of our collective fantasy about country innocence. But maybe because he operates free of the standard postures of contemporary art — irony being the most obvious — what he can do is reach, when he wants to and without apology or ironic distance, for euphoria. It's hard to imagine another contemporary artist attempting, much less getting away with, the sincere effulgence of The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle, Dial's lush take on the first stirrings of the world.

Rauschenberg once said, "Art doesn't come out of art." What he meant, and Dial would surely agree, is that it comes out of life. If anything, art is a word so contaminated these days by hype, misunderstanding and sales talk, it's tempting sometimes to think we should try doing without it. Until you remember that it's the one word spacious enough to contain what Dial does.

March 14 2011

Big Museum Show for an Ex-Welder

by Stan Sesser for WALL STREET JOURNAL

His Alabama family couldn't afford to send him to school. He began doing art seriously in his 60s. Now, at age 82, Thornton Dial is finally getting a big museum survey show that will display 70 of his large-scale works.

Mr. Dial—who is illiterate, tended animals as a little boy and later welded railway cars—translated his social messages into paintings and sculptures that are only now being embraced by the art world. "When I first saw some of his pieces, it was breathtaking," says Bridgette McCullough, a Chicago art historian and an expert in African-American art.

Reflecting Mr. Dial's background, the exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which opened Thursday and runs through Sept. 18, is called "Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial." (The exhibit will later travel to New Orleans, Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta.)

The paintings display a sort of hidden code designed to subtly communicate the artist's social views. In one painting in the exhibit, "High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man)," Mr. Dial used goat hides, clothing, carpet, barbed wire, and metal scraps found in backyards.

It looks like a big abstract collage, until exhibit curator Joanne Cubbs explains that the work is about a slave ship. The iron bars, chains and tangled fencing relate to entrapment. The goat hides are the sails of the ship. In the center of the painting is the figure of Mickey Mouse, "a tongue-in-cheek representation of the men enslaved in the holds like rodents," Ms. Cubbs said.

A key element of Southern black art, rooted in Mr. Dial's large constructions, is called the "yard show"—making symbolic sculptures from objects found in people's yards. For many years Mr. Dial would make these sculptures, then recycle or bury the scraps.

"The dilemma is that he is caught" between the worlds of folk art and modern art, says Ms. McCullough. "If it fell under modern art, the work would be amazing in terms of value." The Indianapolis museum's director, Max Anderson, became interested in Southern black art when he headed the Carlos Museum at Emory University, Atlanta.

Ms. Cubbs, who has known Mr. Dial for 20 years, said he was the hardest worker she he'd ever met. "In the last year, he had a minor stroke and some heart ailments, and he has rallied back," she said. "He just completed the largest piece he's yet made two weeks ago that we're putting into the show."

February 26 2011


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