“Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial,” the newly opened exhibition at the High Museum of Art, commands seven galleries and all three floors of the Anne Cox Chambers Wing — a lot of valuable Peachtree Street real estate.
Yet the display of 59 wall-mounted assemblages, free-standing sculptures and drawings form such a potent critique of social issues in America, and Dial is such a driven and prolific art-maker, one doesn’t doubt the 20-year retrospective could overtake another three stories.
If that sounds like hyperbole, consider the response to “Hard Truths” when it opened at the Indianapolis Museum of Art last year. The Wall Street Journal ran a rave review and later selected the show for its year’s best roundup along with exhibits by Picasso, Degas, Kandinsky and de Kooning. In fact, Dial was the only living artist included.
In Time magazine, critic Richard Lacayo wrote a four-page ode that concluded, “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.”
Reporting from Bessemer, the Alabama industrial town outside Birmingham that has been Dial’s base since he was a teen, The New York Times mused that the self-taught artist’s “marginalization” by the contemporary art establishment “may not last much longer.”
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a folk art collector and friend of Dial’s for several decades, sounded a similar note after touring “Hard Truths” at Charlotte’s Mint Museum during the Democratic convention.
“Some people call it outsider art, but I think it should be included in ‘inside art,’ not just outside,” said Lewis, whose civil rights activism was commemorated by Dial in a public art work spanning 42 feet. “The Bridge” was dedicated in 2005 in Freedom Park off Ponce de Leon Avenue.
Now 84, Dial himself represents a bridge to another time, another South, another kind of art-making.
Born in Emelle, in the heart of western Alabama’s Black Belt region (so named for its black soil that supported cotton plantations before the Civil War), he was working in the fields by age 6. He left school behind at age 12, still in the third grade.
After the death of the great-grandmother who raised him, Dial and a half brother went to live with a relative in Bessemer. There he worked a series of blue-collar jobs that enhanced his natural handiness and propensity to transform scavenged items into new “things.” Then he began a long career as a metalworker at the Pullman boxcar factory.
When those things overflowed the home of his growing family, his wife threatened to leave him if he didn’t dump the “junk.” Even his kids sometimes scratched their heads over what Dad was creating on any given day.
Discouraged, Thornton Dial buried many of his early creations.
“When you start doing something and don’t nobody pay attention to it, you’ll throw it away, too,” he explained during a visit to the High for opening weekend festivities.
Dial’s biography is far from those of the artists included in the High Museum exhibit next door in the Wieland Pavilion, “Fast Forward: Modern Moments, 1913-2013.” One artist in that show, the late Robert Rauschenberg, did, however, take some cues for his found-object pieces from African-American “yard show” assemblages he saw as a boy in Port Arthur, Texas. Ditto Dial in Alabama.
The debate over where the self-taught artist fits in the art world firmament goes back at least to 1993, when Dial was the subject of major simultaneous New York exhibitions at the Museum of American Folk Art and the New Museum for Contemporary Art. With ecstatic reviews coming in, Dial seemed poised for liftoff.
But his trajectory was almost immediately interrupted when “60 Minutes” aired a segment that suggested white Atlanta art dealer William Arnett financially took advantage of black self-taught artists. A believer in the dealer t0 this day, Dial, who appeared on camera only briefly, found Morley Safer’s questions condescending.
The artist spoke volumes about the report in a large, wall-mounted assemblage, “Strange Fruit: Channel 42,” one of the darkest pieces included in “Hard Truths.” In it, a male figure clad in white shirt and blood-red tie hangs from a TV antenna, his mouth a circle of anguish recalling Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Below the lynched figure are rows of ripped cloths — rags being a recurring metaphor in the artist’s work for people and things discarded by society.
Made fragile in recent years by a stroke and other maladies, Dial had a hard time discussing “Strange Fruit,” or, for that matter, any of the “Hard Truths” works during his High visit.
Now requiring a wheelchair, he was rolled into the Chambers Wing by 57-year-old son Richard Dial and trailed by six other family members, several of whom live with and help care for him in Bessemer.
Strikingly handsome still, he sported a navy suit, a starched white shirt and a warm smile. His almond-hued eyes made frequent contact, and when he smiled, which he did often, something of Rhett Butler’s gambler spirit was on exhibit.
But even in days of better health, Dial, who had hardly visited a museum before his work was shown in them and isn’t conversant in the high-flown dialogue spoken there, was content to let his art speak for itself. On this morning, he answered many questions, admittedly posed by an unfamiliar questioner in an unfamiliar setting, with “Right.”
Asked about the “60 Minutes” report, he responded cheerily, “Well, I felt good. I had did it, you know what I’m saying?”
Richard patiently tried to rephrase the reporter’s question. “He’s talking about the ‘60 Minutes’ and how they had all the negative things that kept going on and on,” the son nudged.
“I understand,” Dial said, without elaborating further.
But Joanne Cubbs, the Indianapolis Museum of Art adjunct American art curator who organized “Hard Truths,” had plenty to say about the report.
“They not only distorted the relationship between [the dealer and artists], but they made Dial appear, and here’s the real racist text of the piece, as if he was a bumbling, inarticulate fool who was making work that was not art,” the sunny curator said with sudden fire. “This assault changed the course of Dial’s career. Everything evaporated that had been on the menu. He went into an extended period where he was working in isolation.”
Still, Dial was featured in the prestigious Whitney Biennial in 2000, and individual collectors from both the folk and contemporary sides of the art fence never stopped pursuing his work. While drawings on paper can be scored for as low as $2,000, some museum-worthy constructions come with price tags in the neighborhood of $100,000, according to Folk Fest founder Steve Slotin.
As well, the artist is now represented in the permanent collections of leading museums including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the High.
Yet, if it’s taken nearly 20 years for Dial finally to achieve another moment with “Hard Truths,” Cubbs believes it’s more than time healing all wounds. She credits a greater openness over those years by museum-goers and collectors, dealers and curators to accept art outside the mainstream, applying fewer distancing labels.
“One of the interesting things about this exhibition is that from the very beginning of planning we didn’t talk about Dial as a folk, self-taught or even an African-American artist,” the curator said. “We talked about him as a contemporary artist or as an American artist.”
Taken on their own terms, the works resonate with Dial’s fierce intelligence and reveal his remarkable mastery of materials. They cover topics including racial oppression, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Iraq war, 9/11 and, in the show’s most stirringly intimate piece, the 2005 death of his wife, Clara Mae Murrow.
“His work is meant to inspire,” Cubbs explained, “not push or prod.”
In the late 1980s, after Dial met Arnett through a fellow artist, the art world finally began paying attention to his works that mix personal, art historical and metaphysical themes to differing degrees.
Richard Dial recalled some early tour bus visitors who were brought to tears by an MLK-themed construction of his father’s.
“They were laying down on the ground just crying, they were so moved,” Richard said. “Now at that point you start to think [maybe there’s something special here]. That was the time when everybody started taking him a lot more seriously.”
As a teenager, Richard and his two brothers, who’d rather have been playing basketball, begrudged it when their Dad made them help in the shop. Life came full circle a few years ago when the sons carved out an area of Dial Metal Patterns, their fabrication shop, to provide their father a work space where they could keep eyes on him.
Ailing at times from the mileage of being 84, Dial nonetheless goes to the studio nearly every day.
He’s got work to do: The reception for “Hard Times” has sparked two new series, one on natural disasters, which Cubbs said are metaphors for political upheavals, and one on rebirth.
That last topic raised the question of what the artist would like his legacy to be.
A quizzical expression swept across his chiseled face.
So the query was reposed: How would he like people to think of him after he’s gone?
“Think good of me,” Thornton Dial said, this time without hesitation.
“Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial”
Through March 3. 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $18; $15, students and seniors; $11, ages 6-17; free, 5 and younger. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4200, www.high.org.
ON THE EXHIBIT TITLE
“All truth is hard truth. We’re in the darkness now, and we got to accept the hard truth to bring on the light. You can hide the truth, but you can’t get rid of it. When truth come out in the light, we get the beauty of the world.”
— Thornton Dial, quoted in blown-up wall text at the entrance to “Hard Truths”
The meaning behind Thornton Dial’s recurring visual metaphors:
- Tigers: African-American struggle; finding balance in an imbalanced world.
- Eagles: America’s often-unrealized promise.
- Fences, barbed wire: Barriers, often between classes.
- Carpeting: People who are considered lowly and often stepped upon by others.
- Gray, black: Sooty despoiling by industry
- Green: Greed or financial opportunism
- Yellow: The coming together of race
Source: Joanne Cubbs