Fact Sheet: Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas” 


Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas

Sept. 15 to June 2, 2024


Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and G Streets. N.W.


“Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas” draws on the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s extensive holdings of Alma Thomas’ art to offer an intimate view of her evolving practice during her most prolific period, 1959 to 1978. The museum has the largest public collection of works by Thomas in the world. Her art first entered its collection in 1970, and the museum acquired more than a dozen works during the artist’s lifetime and 13 that were bequeathed to the museum by Thomas after her death. “Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas” draws on these extensive holdings to offer an intimate view of Thomas’s evolving practice during her most prolific period, 1959 to 1978, featuring 17 works from the museum’s collection and two loans.

In the mid-1960s, Thomas created a painting style distinctly her own, characterized by the dazzling interplay of pattern and vibrant color. Thomas once stated, “Art could be anything. It could be behavior—as long as it’s beautiful.”

In her work, color can be symbolic and multisensory, evoking sound, motion, temperature, even scent. Her abiding source of inspiration was nature—whether seen through her kitchen window or from outer space. Organized around the artist’s favored themes of Space, Earth, and Music, the exhibition invites the viewer to see the world through Thomas’ eyes. She often assigned titles to her own paintings that connect natural phenomena, like flowers or a sunset, with song. In her art, nature and music are treated as twin expressions of a fundamental life force or spirit.

Consciously oriented toward the future, Thomas embraced the technological and social changes of the 20th century. Her artistic evolution from academic painting to abstraction reflected this forward-facing attitude—her belief in the need for “a new art representing a new era.”

New research into her materials and techniques show how Thomas continued to innovate artistically until the end of her life, at times changing her methods to adapt to her declining physical ability due to arthritis. As the luminous works in the exhibition reveal, Thomas’ astounding creative drive and mastery of color remained constant through her final years.

After the exhibition closes at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, it will travel to several venues across the United States.


“Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas” is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support is provided by the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Chris G. Harris, The Wolf Kahn Foundation and Susan Talley.

Note to editors: Selected high-resolution images for publicity only are available through the museum’s Dropbox account. Email americanartpressoffice@si.edu to request the link.

About the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the flagship museum in the United States for American art and craft. It is home to one of the most significant and inclusive collections of American art in the world. The museum’s main building, located at Eighth and G streets N.W., is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The museum’s Renwick Gallery, a branch museum dedicated to contemporary craft, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Check online for current hours and admission information. Admission is free. Follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Smithsonian information: (202) 633-1000. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Website: americanart.si.edu.

Press Images

Alma Thomas, The Eclipse, 1970, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1978.40.3
Alma Thomas, The Eclipse, 1978.40.3