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Top of the Line (Steel)

1992 Thornton Dial, Sr. Born: Emelle, Alabama 1928 Died: McCalla, Alabama 2016 mixed media: enamel, unbraided canvas roping, and metal on plywood 65 x 81 x 7 7/8 in. (165.2 x 205.7 x 20.1 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift from the collection of Ron and June Shelp 1993.47 Not currently on view

Exhibition Label

Dial created Top of the Line (Steel) in response to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, after a jury acquitted four white policemen in the beating of unarmed black motorist Rodney King. The verdict ignited looting and rioting that lasted several days. Top of the Line re-creates the frenzy of the streets. Rope-outlined figures swirl in a dense field of color and line, grasping at pieces of automobiles and air-conditioners. Bold touches of red suggest violence; black-and-white figures symbolize racial tensions; red, white, and blue strokes, faint notes of patriotism, interweave the canvas in clusters.

African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, 2012

Gallery Label

Thornton Dial Sr. uses scrap metal, wood, carpeting, and house paint to make his art. Having worked most of his life as an industrial laborer, he is also a social critic; his paintings raise issues of class and race and refer to current events and key moments in African American history.

This piece is Dial’s response to the social outbreak of the Los Angeles riots in 1992—among the largest civil disturbances in American history. Painted figures loot parts of air conditioners, cars, and other consumer goods. His frenzied brushstrokes convey the intensity of the mob. The title has a double meaning, referring to the quality of the stolen merchandise and the socioeconomic struggle for equality. "Steel" also plays on the word "steal," pointing to Dial's experience as a steelworker and the looting that took place during the riots.

"I make art that ain't speaking against nobody or for nobody either. Sometimes it be about what is wrong in life."
—Thornton Dial Sr.

Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006

Research Notes

Read research notes for Top of the Line (Steel). (pdf)



Figure group

Figure - fragment - face


folk art

fabric - rope

metal - steel

paint - enamel

wood - plywood