New Delhi, Jan 16 (IANSlife) Fonda, an Academy Award-winning actor, author, and activist, has long supported and collected Black artists from the American South. She originally came into contact with these artists through Bill Arnett, an art historian and patron who first supported Dial and other like artists.
Things Grow in the United States: Works from the Collection of Jane Fonda will be featured by Christie’s on January 18 as part of the Outsider and Vernacular Art sale. Major works by Thornton Dial, his brother Arthur Dial, and his son Thornton Dial, Jr. are included in the collection.
Fonda is still able to recall her first visit to Arnett’s Atlanta house in the 1990s. She remembers, “It was jam-packed with these paintings by Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Joe Minter, and so many other Black painters of the South.” To go through the door, “you literally had to squeeze your stomach in.” Fonda had a collection of plein air paintings at the time, primarily early California landscapes by female artists. The artwork she saw at Arnett’s profoundly affected her: “I couldn’t believe the vitality, the energy, the daring, the rawness of these paintings.” It was a turning point in her collecting; she continues, “I bought a bunch of pieces right there.”
As time went on, she came to know the artists Arnett was promoting by visiting their backyard art installations and home studios in Birmingham and the surrounding Alabama areas. Thornton Dial, a self-taught artist whose dramatic paintings and collages of various objects represent the challenges of Black Americans, caught her attention in particular. His vivid, unwavering images of racism, sexism, and the violence of war offer sharp social critique.
When asked about the power of art as a form of activism, Fonda notes, “I don’t know of more powerful statements about the challenges faced in the Jim Crow South than these works of art. These aren’t just commentaries on social wrongs. These are testaments to them by people who experienced it, who lived it.”
“These aren’t just commentaries on social wrongs. These are testaments to them by people who experienced it, who lived it” – Jane Fonda.
While Dial and his contemporaries are frequently framed as outsider artists, or sometimes vernacular or folk artists, Fonda refrains from categorizing them: “I prefer to refer to these artists without the need for qualifying adjectives,” she says.
She situates Dial, Holley and Minter’s use of found objects in the tradition of the readymade in American post-war art: “They made things out of what they found in their environment. They’re so brilliant in the way they repurpose materials, and they did it with an impact that very few other artists ever had.”
Dial, who incorporated metalworking techniques into his art, began as a steelworker in segregated Bessemer, Alabama. “He made railroad cars for white passengers that he could never travel in,” says Fonda. And it motivated him to dare to make art that “portrayed the struggle of Black people in the face of unremitting racism and discrimination.”
Dial’s work now resides in the permanent collections of major institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. “I was so happy to see works of Thornton Dial hanging with those of Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and others in the Met,” says Fonda. “Still, there is a lot more to be done. We have to see these artists assessed as leading figures of the 20th century.”
Dial was part of a creative family, and Fonda also collected works by his brother, Arthur Dial, and his son, Thornton Dial, Jr. The works in Things Grow in the United States include a number of pieces Fonda lived with and feels a strong personal connection to, including two sculptural benches made by Dial, Jr. “I had those animal benches in my apartment in Atlanta for 20 years. I just adore them.”
In 2000 Fonda partnered with Arnett to form Tinwood Books, which has published seminal volumes on African American art of the South including Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art and The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. She is also a trustee of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, dedicated to promoting the work of Black contemporary artists from the South-eastern United States, as well as supporting their communities by fostering economic empowerment, racial and social justice, and educational advancement. “We cannot allow racism and discrimination to keep this art from being included in the national family of artwork, which it has been for too long,” she says.
(IANSlife can be contacted at email@example.com)