A micro-retrospective of Thornton Dial’s work, entitled We All Live Under the Same Old Flag, is on view at Marianne Boesky Gallery in Chelsea from April 30th until June 18th, 2016. The orange, red, muddy green and brown structures are hung at exact intervals around a small, polished room. The rectangles are either wooden, metal, painted, twisted and tangled or they are flattened, cloth-y, soft and rotten looking. Some are despairingly energetic, while others are still like mud. There are dull moments and moments of incredible poignancy, like history itself. There is almost no sense of symmetry in the show throughout, but there is a small, bright rhythm, both disturbingly dreary and bright like fire.
But this is simply the appearance of the show, which, in the case of any Thornton Dial display, is only half of the experience. The other half is the central narrative of Dial’s discovery in rural Alabama and his elevation, twenty-five years ago, to international distinction and prime market appraisal. Dial was a retired steelworker who began experimenting with sculpture and forms at his Bessemer home when he was discovered and then systematically promoted by Bill Arnett, a collector and dealer, for the subsequent two decades. As an artist, a resident of the south and an African American, Dial held many opinions that contribute to his legacy and the force of the work — works that consciously comment on African American identity and history; however, he remained famously inert to art-historical context throughout his career. It’s been said that Arnett’s influence on the work overall is hard to state definitively. Throughout his success, Dial’s audience has been forced to come to complicated conclusions about exposure, market value and representation.
This is the history that must squeeze into the small space on 24th street and 10th avenue with nine of Thornton Dial’s works hung on the walls. Considering Dial passed just earlier this year, it seems a fit moment to reflect on the work, the man, and the controversy, if only one can find space in the room to sit and to think.
Subscribe to Art Report’s official newsletter for more stories you don’t want to miss.