Alma Thomas, Lunar Rendezvous—Circle of Flowers

Alma Thomas, Lunar Rendezvous—Circle of Flowers, 1969, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 121.9 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville)

[0:00] [music]

Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, looking at a substantial painting by Alma Thomas. It’s got such a curious title, “Lunar Rendezvous, Circle of Flowers.” We’re talking about the moon, we’re talking about a garden. But that makes sense because this is 1969.

Alejo Benedetti: [0:24] This is right after we land on the moon, right after humans land on our closest astral body, and everybody is looking to space, looking to the cosmos. Alma Thomas is aware of that, but she is also saying, let’s take a look back at earth.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] On earth, an area that she was particularly interested in was the garden in her backyard.

Alejo: [0:46] Alma Thomas loved gardening and took a lot of inspiration from that, in the imagery, in the colors, but also even in the way that she was applying paint.

[0:54] We think about going and placing seeds in the ground, this is a very repetitive act. If you look at her paintings, the way that she’s applying paint, she’s doing these little plantings of staccato paint marks onto the surface of the canvas.

Dr. Zucker: [1:11] We have to have an expansive enough view when we read the title and look at this painting to be able to hold in our minds both the idea of the garden but also entire worlds.

Alejo: [1:23] For Alma Thomas, it was the 1969 moon landing that kicks this off, but it’s very specifically those first photos of the earth seen from space, and she was so inspired by this.

Dr. Zucker: [1:35] I was eight years old when I saw those photographs. You looked across the horizon of the gray moon. You looked into this deep black space. There was this brilliant blue planet. There was our planet. It was spectacularly beautiful. I think that for Alma Thomas, beauty is an essential component of her art.

Alejo: [1:54] Everybody that looks at this painting thinks, “That is a stunning work, that is beautiful.”

Dr. Zucker: [1:58] But it’s not an easy beauty, those colors are tough. There’s a deep almost olive green, up against a black, that’s up against a dull purple. Then there’s this brilliant yellow, which is up against a sky blue, up against a dull orange. These are not colors that traditionally belong together.

Alejo: [2:17] It doesn’t really seem like it’s following any established way of pairing colors and yet it all works. This is the brilliance of Alma Thomas, that she was so good at understanding how these colors can live and work together.

Dr. Zucker: [2:31] At first, this painting seems very flat. I can enter into the interior of a kind of cylinder, or I see these rings of color begin to move in opposition to each other. As they begin to spin, I see an energy between the blacks and greens and yellows at the outer circles that seem to defy each other and energize each other.

Alejo: [2:54] This parallels perfectly with these ideas of looking back to the Earth from space.

Dr. Zucker: [3:00] This is part of a series of paintings that were shown together as part of the Earth and Space series, and they’re all different. What I find so intriguing about this painting is the pale blue that surrounds the circles of color. It can be read in a number of different ways. That is atmosphere. It is space.

[3:19] We’re looking at something planetary, or those are the flagstones of her garden surrounding a bed of flowers, or it is two-dimensional paint on canvas. Because this is 1969, the height of Washington, D.C. Color Field painting.

Alejo: [3:34] One of the things that’s so amazing about Alma Thomas is that she’s able to combine all of those associations. She is beautifully uniting the heavens and the earth underfoot. She’s doing it in a way that makes us realize that both of those things are remarkable.

[3:51] [music]

Cite this page as: Alejo Benedetti, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Alma Thomas, Lunar Rendezvous—Circle of Flowers," in Smarthistory, September 19, 2022, accessed May 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/alma-thomas-lunar-rendezvous-circle-of-flowers/.