YVONNE THOMAS | Nocturnal

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Berry Campbell Gallery
YVONNE THOMAS
Nocturnal, 1955
Signed on verso: Yvonne Thomas/1955 oil/"Nocturnal"/19"x28"
Oil on canvas
20 x 29 x 1.5 in. (framed)
19 x 28 x 1.25 in.

$30,000

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PROVENANCE
Estate of the Artist

ARTIST BIOGRAPHY
Thomas was born in Nice, France, in 1913, and arrived with her family in the United States in 1925. After first settling in Boston, the family moved to New York, where Thomas studied briefly at Cooper Union. When her parents could not afford her tuition due to the Great Depression, she turned to commercial work, supporting herself as a fashion illustrator.

In 1938, she chose to devote herself to art, enrolling at the Art Students League, where she studied with Vaclav Vytacil and took lessons in the figure and portraiture from the Russian painter Dmitri Romanovsky. She also attended the Ozenfant School of Fine Art, where the French Cubist emigrée Amadée Ozenfant introduced her to the modernist precepts to which she would be devoted throughout the rest of her career. In 1948, Patricia Matta, the wife of the artist Roberto Matta, provided Thomas with an introduction to the Subjects of the Artists School. Situated in a loft at 23 East 8th Street, the school consisted of participants who were considered “collaborators” rather than teacher-and-student. The artists in the school were leading figures in the American avant-garde, with whom Thomas interacted on an equal footing. They included William Baziotes, David Hare, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hoffman, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. At the Subjects of the Artists School, Thomas felt she had “finally come home.”

In 1950, Thomas studied with Hofmann at his school in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She credits him with giving her the “courage of color.” In the next year, she took part in the first of a series of annual exhibitions of abstract art, that became legendary. The first—the Ninth Street Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture—was held at 60 East 9th Street in Greenwich Village in May and June of 1951. The Stable Gallery on Seventh Avenue at Fifty-Eighth Street was the venue for the subsequent shows, held from 1953 to 1957. The exhibitions enabled women artists to exhibit abstract works for which they had few opportunities otherwise, whereas male colleagues, who had more representation, were gaining recognition more broadly. Thomas was one of few artists to be included in all five of the Ninth Street shows. She was also a member the exclusive Artist’s Club, a gathering of artists and intellectuals, which was only for male artists when it began in 1949.

In the mid-1950s, Thomas loosened the Cubist structures she had used earlier, employing more gestural handling to create works that were more expressively free. The personal quality in these paintings was deemed “American” by Stuart Preston in a review of a three-artist show at Tanager Gallery in 1954, in which Thomas was included. Preston singled out the work of Thomas and Miriam Schapiro, calling both “talented” and “comparatively unknown” artists who distilled “non-specific emotional moods in a language of restless brushwork and fitful color.” Also reviewing the show, Dore Ashton observed the “landscape feeling” in Thomas’s oils and commented: “Hers is a delicate, very subtle intonation, adjusted to atmospheric rather than energetic forces in nature.” Thomas’s first solo exhibition occurred that year at Hendler Gallery in Philadelphia. In a review in Art Digest, Sam Feinstein noted that Thomas seemed “not at all concerned with the opposition of horizontals and verticals,” but instead created works consisting of “soft, curvilinear brushings harmonized into a pictorial lyricism.”

In the following year, Thomas was one of eleven artists represented in a show at the Riverside Museum, New York, where her work was shown alongside that of Franz Kline, Milton Avery, Kenzo Okada, and Leon Polk Smith. In a review, Howard Devree gave recognition to Thomas’s “vigorous loose color arrangements.” In 1956, a solo show of her work was held at Tanager. Art News commented that the works on view were larger than those at the gallery two years earlier and demonstrated more control, in their “deliberately selected forms.” Arts Magazine observed that Thomas had succeeded in “establishing a really plastic tension and strength” in works such as Aspen and By the Sea.

In April 1960, after a year spent in Paris, Thomas had her second New York show, which was held at the Esther Stuttman Gallery in New York. It included some paintings rendered in Paris along with recent New York works. Art News stated that in her work Thomas did not “disguise who she is in her “personal color harmonies” and in imagery that was “not readily identifiable,” but “close to the free-form spirit of place.” The New York Times commented: “Big, brave gestures with paint and color parade on energetic action paintings.” Of the works on view, Arts magazine observed that: “wide brush-strokes and sweeps of color glissade to the plane of the bare canvas” while stating: “adept knowledge implements a personal, fresh, clear and uncomplicated lyricism—the kind one thinks of first, enjoyable, joyous, and a little pristine.” The show was sent on to Stuttman’s Gallery in Paris, located in the twelfth arrondissement. A reviewer in Les Arts observed that the forms in some of Thomas’s paintings surged forward while in others they were skillfully harmonized.

When Thomas had another solo exhibition in 1961, held at Galerie Agnes Lefort in Montreal, a reviewer for the Montreal Gazette noted that Thomas was moving from action painting to a “more analytical observation of her wildly careening or stolid forms and receding planes in limitless space,” categorically denying the first impression made by a work. In 1962 through 1964, Thomas was featured in one-artist shows in New York; Aspen, Colorado; and East Hampton, New York. By the time her work was featured at the Rose Fried Gallery in May of 1965, she had developed the more geometric and structural approach of the art in the current exhibition.

Thomas continued to paint and actively exhibit her art until the end of her life. A show of her “yellow paintings” was held in 2006 at Lohin Geluld Gallery in New York. She was featured in several group shows in 2008, a year before her death. In 2016, she was one of the artists included in Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibition catalogue, a traveling exhibition organized by the Denver Art Museum. The accompanying catalogue, consisting of essays by several scholars, celebrated “the special contributions of women to Abstract Expressionism,” providing an “essential corrective” to what has been the “unequal accounting of women’s contributions” to the movement. Like other women who embraced abstraction, Thomas did not gain renown equal to that of the male artists of her time. However, a consideration of her career reveals that the issues she addressed, the organizations in which she took part, and the zeitgeist of her art gave her a central role in the avant-garde movement that she embraced.

Lisa N. Peters, Ph.D.
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