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Remembering Thornton Dial, Outsider Artists whose work told of Black Life

Thornton Dial, a self-taught artist whose paintings and assemblages fashioned from scavenged materials told the story of black struggle in the South and found their way to the permanent collections of major museums, died on Monday at his home in McCalla, Ala. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by family members.

Mr. Dial, the illiterate son of an unwed teenage mother, spent much of his childhood in rural poverty in western Alabama and, after moving to Bessemer, an industrial suburb of Birmingham, labored at a wide variety of occupations, all the while making works from castoff materials that he came to think of as art only when he was in his 50s.

In 1987, Lonnie Holley, a self-taught artist living in Birmingham, showed William Arnett, an Atlanta collector interested in Southern folk art, one of Mr. Dial’s decorated fish lures. The two men went to see Mr. Dial, who, once he realized what Mr. Arnett was looking for, pulled a painted, welded-steel sculpture topped by a stylized steel turkey out of a turkey coop.

“I knew I was witnessing something great coming out of that turkey coop,” Mr. Arnett said in a statement issued by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which he established to preserve and document African-American vernacular art. “I didn’t know at the time that it wasn’t simply the sculpture that was special. The man who had created it was a great man, and he would go on to become recognized as one of America’s greatest artists. I can’t think of any important artist who has started with less or accomplished more.”

Thornton Dial at his studio in Bessemer, Ala., in 2011. Credit Josh Anderson for The New York Times
Thornton Dial at his studio in Bessemer, Ala., in 2011. Credit Josh Anderson for The New York Times


Mr. Arnett championed Mr. Dial relentlessly, with remarkable success.

In the early 1990s, as Mr. Dial’s work began appearing in museum shows, he gained recognition as a remarkable artist and storyteller, with a turbulent, expressionist manner that drew comparisons to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Anselm Kiefer.

“Dial’s paintings are like patches of rough seas in which the faces and figures of living things rise and sink among waves of detritus and color,” Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times in 1993.

Intense interest in the previously neglected area of outsider art only enhanced his stature. Over the years, his work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Ten of Mr. Dial’s works were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013 as a part of a larger donation from Mr. Arnett’s foundation.

“From the complex, exuberant textures of his assemblages to the deft, fluid lines of his drawings, Dial’s facility as an artist was truly extraordinary,” Sheena Wagstaff, the chairwoman of the department of modern and contemporary art at the Met, said on Monday. “He leaves us with a body of work that is a rich visual manifestation of a life history, one that witnessed a remarkable time of change in the world from the perspective of an African-American man.”

Thornton Dial was born on Sept. 10, 1928, in Emelle, Ala., on a former cotton plantation where members of his extended family worked as sharecroppers. His mother, Mattie Bell, was unable to care for him, and from the age of 3 he was raised by his great-grandmother on the farm of a cousin, Buddy Jake Dial, who liked to make sculptures from bits and pieces lying around the yard.

Out of the Darkness, the Lord Gave Us Light (2003) Thornton Dial via Marianne Boesky Gallery


Thornton picked cotton, drove a mule around a hay baler, herded cows and helped with the milking. Busy and energetic, he raised vegetables on small plots scattered around the area. He rarely attended school.

“I went enough to learn a little bit,” he told Mr. Arnett in a series of interviews in the 1990s for the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. “They told me, ‘Learn to figure out your money and write your name. That’s as far as a Negro can go.’”

When he was 12 he was sent to live with relatives in Bessemer, where he worked on road crews, painted houses, loaded bricks and did carpentry. For 30 years, he was a metalworker at the Pullman Standard Plant, which made railroad cars. After the plant closed in 1981, he started making metal patio furniture with his sons in a shed behind his house.

In 1951, he married Clara Mae Murrow, who died in 2005. He is survived by a half brother, Arthur Dial; a daughter, Mattie Dial; three sons, Thornton Jr., Richard and Dan; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mr. Dial made his work from anything at hand, from bits of rope to bones to scrap metal. “I like to use the stuff that I know about, stuff that I know the feel of,” he told Mr. Arnett.


“Lost Cows,” a sculpture Mr. Dial created from the bones of his dead cows. Credit Thornton Dial, via Marianne Boesky Gallery
“Lost Cows,” a sculpture Mr. Dial created from the bones of his dead cows. Credit Thornton Dial, via Marianne Boesky Gallery


“I’m talking about tin, steel, copper, and aluminum, and also old wood, carpet, rope, old clothes, sand, rocks, wire, screen, toys, tree limbs and roots,” he added. “You could say, ‘If Dial see it, he know what to do with it.’”

A large canvas-on-wood work from 1992, “Graveyard Traveler/Selma Bridge,” incorporates rope rug, tin, wood, wire, plastic bags, paint-can lids and pine cones.

Initially he made art to please himself, or to ornament practical objects. He drew on plywood with an elegant, sinuous line, switching to paper in the early 1990s.

When he began showing his work in galleries and museums, he often played variations on the image of a tiger, a symbol of strength, tenacity and the survival instinct that he used to express the tragedies and triumphs of black life.

In “The Last Day of Martin Luther King” (1992), a somber black and white tiger made of painted mop strings stands in for the murdered civil rights leader, while the four spindly, brightly colored “All the Cats in Town” (1993), interlocked like a puzzle, strut and pose with attitude.

Thornton Dial, in his studio in Bessemer, Ala., in 2011, grew up in rural poverty Josh Anderson NY Times
Thornton Dial, in his studio in Bessemer, Ala., in 2011, grew up in rural poverty Josh Anderson NY Times


Mr. Dial often commented on current events. He translated wildfires in California into a mixed-media work of wood, tin and soil in “Out of Control” (2003), and around the time of the American invasion of Iraq, he shredded and reassembled the Stars and Stripes in “Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together” (2003).

Other works stayed close to home. When several cows that he bought died, he used their white bones to make a work of sculpture, “Lost Cows” (2000-1). His response to an 1869 painting by William Merritt Chase, “Still Life With Watermelon,” was a celebration of Southern cooking, “Setting the Table” (2003), with a bunch of grapes made from a beaded car seat, and an actual frying pan glued to the canvas, with painted eggs inside.

“I mostly pick up stuff,” Mr. Dial told The Times in 2011. “I start on a picture when I get a whole lot of stuff together. And then I look at the piece and think about life.”

In 1993, his work was the subject of a large exhibition, “Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger,” which was presented simultaneously at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the American Folk Art Museum in New York. The Museum of Fine Art, Houston, presented a major exhibition, “Thornton Dial in the 21st Century” in 2005, and in 2011, the Indianapolis Museum of Art mounted a traveling retrospective, “Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial.”

“Art is like a bright star up ahead in the darkness of the world,” Mr. Dial told Mr. Arnett. “It can lead peoples through the darkness and help them from being afraid of the darkness. Art is a guide for every person who is looking for something. That’s how I can describe myself: Mr. Dial is a man looking for something.”