Outsider Art Fair
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Thornton Dial

American, contemporary.
Born 1928, Emelle, Alabama; died 2016, McCalla, Alabama


Born in a cornfield to an unwed teenage mother, Dial grew up in rural Emelle, in Alabama's western flatlands. He began full-time farm work at age five and managed to attend school only rarely. On the eve of World War II, he was sent tolive with relatives in Bessemer, just outside Birmingham. There, he married, raised a family, and worked for half a century in heavy industry, building highways, houses and ultimately boxcars during a thirty-year stint at the Pullman Standard Plant.

Dial's life encompasses many of the most consequential episodes in twentieth-century African-American life--sharecropping in the Black Belt, migration from country to city, the upheavals of the civil rights era, and the ethnic conundrums of a rapidly changing postmodern America. As John Beardsley writes, "Dial's life is inseparable from history, because he has made it his business as an artist to be a historian. Dial lived history, then he represented it in paintings and sculptures."

From childhood on, Dial built "things" using whatever he could salvage, recycling even his own work to reuse materials in new creations. Dial referred to what he made only as "things," though late in life he found out that others call them "art." Having developed during the era of racial segregation, Dial's style is both personal and culturally rich, and it speaks with a resolute voice that was denied him through the years as a black factory worker.

In Dial's art, intense surfaces, multilayered narratives, shifting compositional relationships, and a metaphysical concern with issues of recycling and ancestry exist hand in hand with an ironic, earthy wit and an almost religious determination to make art's complexities and mysteries central to the human understanding of reality.

- Phillip March Jones


Selected Exhibitions

2017, Known/Unknown: Private Obsession and Hidden Desire in Outsider Art, Museum of Sex, New York

2016, Thornton Dial: Works on Paper, Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York

2016, Thornton Dial: We All Live Under the Same Old Flag, Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York

2014, When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South, Studio Museum of Harlem, New York

2014, Social Geographies: Interpreting Space and Place, curated by Leisa Rundquist, Asheville Art Museum, Asheville

2013, Seismic Shifts: Ten Visionaries in American Art and Architecture, National Academy Museum, New York

2012, Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN

2012, Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC

2011, Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis

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

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

1993, Image of the Tiger, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, American Folk Art Museum, New York

Selected Collections

Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill
American Folk Art Museum, New York
Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama
Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco
Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan
Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Museum of Modern Art, New York
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Selected Bibliography 

Lax, Thomas J., When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South, exhibition catalogue, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 2014.

Williams, Paige, "Composition in Black and White," New Yorker, August 12, 2013.

Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial
, Indianapolis Museum of Art and Prestel, 2011.

Thornton Dial in the 21st Century, Tinwood Books, Atlanta, 2005.

Souls Grown Deep: Volumes 1 and 2, ed. William and Paul Arnett, Tinwood Books, Atlanta, 2000 & 2001.

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