Thornton Dial

Born 1928, Emelle, AL

Born in a cornfield to an unwed teenage mother, Dial grew up in rural Emelle, in Alabama's western flatlands. He began full-time farm work at age five and managed to attend school only rarely. On the eve of World War II, he was sent to live with relatives in Bessemer, just outside Birmingham. There, he married, raised a family, and worked for half a century in heavy industry, building highways, houses and ultimately boxcars during a thirty-year stint at the Pullman Standard Plant.

Dial's life encompasses many of the most consequential episodes in twentieth-century African-American life - sharecropping in the Black Belt, migration from country to city, the upheaval of the civil rights era, and the ethnic conundrums of a rapidly changing postmodern America. As John Beardsley writes, "Dial's life is inseparable from history, because he had made it his business as an artist to be a historian. Dial lived history, then he represented it in paintings and sculptures.

From childhood on, Dial built "things" using whatever he could salvage, recycling even his own work to reuse materials in new creations. Dial referred to what he made only as "things," though late in life he found out that others call them "art." Having developed during the era of racial segregation, Dial's style is both personal and culturally rich, and it speaks with a resolute voice that was denied him through the years as a black factory worker.

In Dial's art, intense surfaces, multilayered narratives, shifting compositional relationships, and a metaphysical concern with issues of recycling and ancestry exist hand in hand with an ironic, earthy wit and an almost religious determination to make art's complexities and mysteries central to the human understanding of reality.


Thornton Dial, Independent Projects, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York

Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial. Indianapolis Museum of Art, New Orleans Museum of Art, Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC, High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Thornton Dial: Viewpoint of the Foundry Man. Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
Thornton Dial. Virginia Union University and Art Gallery, Richmond, VA
Thoughts on Paper. Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, NC, Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont, Burlington

Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York

Thornton Dial in the 21st Century. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Thornton Dial: His Spoken Dreams. Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York

Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger. New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; American Folk Art Museum, New York; American Center, Paris

Thornton Dial: Works on Paper. Luise Ross Gallery, New York

Thornton Dial, Sr.: Works on Paper. Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York

Thornton Dial: Strategy of the World. Southern Queens Park Association/African-American Hall of Fame, Jamaica, New York
Thornton Dial. Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta
Thornton Dial: Ladies of the United States. Library Art Gallery, Kennesaw State College, Marietta, Georgia


When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York
Social Geographies: Interpreting Space and Place, curated by Leisa Rundquist, Asheville Museum of Art, Asheville, NC

Seismic Shifts: Ten Visionaries in Contemporary Art and Architecture. National Academy Museum & School, New York (forthcoming)

Thornton Dial and Lizzi Bougatsos. James Fuentes, New York
The Soul of a City: Memphis Collects African American Art. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN
Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial. The Frist Center for Visual Arts, Nashville

All Folked Up! Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
The Armory Show, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York

In the Spirit of Martin. Smithsonian Institution, traveling

Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology. Philadelphia Museum


Thornton Dial: Viewpoint of the Foundry Man. catalogue, Andrew Edlin Gallery, 2012
Creation Story: Gee's Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial. catalogue, Frist Center for the Visual Arts and Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 2012

Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper. edited by Bernard L. Herman, Ackland Art Museum and University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, 2011
Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial. catalogue, Prestel 2011

Outsider Art Sourcebook. Raw Vision, 2009

Thornton Dial in the 21st Century. catalogue, Tinwood, 2005

American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum. catalogue, 2001

Souls Grown Deep. Volumes 1 and 2, Arnett et al, 2000 & 2001

Passionate Visions of the American South: Self Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present. New Orleans Museum of Art, 1993
American Self-Taught. Maresca & Ricco, 1993
Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger. Baraka & McEvilly, 1993
20th Century American Folk, Self-Taught, and Outsider Art. Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1993

Museum of Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists. Abbeville Press, 1990


Kennedy, Randy. "For Met Museum, a Major Gift of Works by African-American Artists From the South." New York Times, November 24.
Sutton, Benjamin. "The Met Museum Nets Major Collection of Outsider Art from the South." Hyperallergic, November 24.
Niland, Josh. "The Met Hit the Jackpot of African-American Art." artnet News, November 24.

Kuspit, Donald. Review, Artforum, Summer.
Wilkin, Karen. “Biography, History, Self-Evident Beauty.” Wall Street Journal, April 21.
Doran, Anne. Review, Time Out New York, April 14-20.
Review, New Yorker, April 11.
Lacayo, Richard. “Outside the Lines.” Time, March 14.
Kino, Carol. “Letting His Life’s Work Do the Talking.” New York Times, February 20.
Gómez, Edward M. “On the Border.” Art & Antiques Magazine, February.

Jones, Phillip March. “Thornton Dial, Sr.” White Hot Magazine, February.

Giovanni, Nikki; Chassman, Gary Miles; Leonard, Walter. In the Spirit of Martin. Tinwood Books.

Smith, Dinitia, “Bits, Pieces and a Drive To Turn Them Into Art.” New York Times, February 5.

Smith, Roberta. “A Young Style for an Old Story.” New York Times, December 19.
Scott, Sue. “Thornton Dial [exhibition review].” ARTnews 92, April
Lloyd, Ann Wilson. “Thornton Dial at Luise Ross.” Art in America, May.

Kuspit, Donald. “The Appropriation of Marginal Art in the 1980s.” American Art, Winter/Spring.

Kroll, Jack. “The Outsiders Are In: American Folk Artists Move into the World of Money and Fame.” Newsweek, December 2.


Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
American Folk Art Museum, New York
Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL
Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Intuit, Chicago, IL
Milwaukee Art Museum
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
New Orleans Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, IL
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Whitney Museum of American Art