Thornton Dial American, 1928-2016


 "If everybody understand one another, wouldn’t nobody make art. Art is something to open your eyes. Art is for understanding."


- Thornton Dial

Thornton Dial was a pioneering African-American artist who came to prominence in the late 1980s. Dial’s body of work exhibits formal variety through expressive, densely composed assemblages of found materials, often executed on a monumental scale. His range of subjects embraces a broad sweep of history, from human rights to natural disasters and current events. His works have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the American Folk Art Museum, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. Ten of Dial’s works were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014.

Artistic giant Thornton Dial - who never learned to read or write - rose to the pinnacle of contemporary art history over a thirty year trajectory that began as he approached 60 years of age.


Thornton Dial was born into a sharecropping family in rural Alabama, on the eve of the Great Depression. He experienced the trauma and tumult of both Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights movement. Profoundly influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dial used art to confront issues of racial oppression in the United States, developing an allegorical style that was abstracted but narrative, conveying concerns both personal and universal.


His large, bold works, with incisive titles and themes of race and class, captivated the art world through sophisticated content and an aesthetic that defied stereotypes of “folk.” Dial bridged the worlds of Black vernacular self-taught artists and the contemporary mainstream. He was a conduit between nineteenth-century-born artists like Bill Traylor; African American quilters who had, for too long, gone unrecognized as artists; and a younger generation of Black creatives seeking a way forward.


Dial lived to see his work be acquired by some of the most revered museums in the United States and become relevant to the mainstream art world in unprecedented ways. As the art world increasingly embraced him, Dial used his voice to raise serious questions about its long-standing hierarchies and inequities. He became emblematic of a shifting southern landscape in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries — as the deeply rooted vision of Black Americans revealed its tremendous power.



Send me more information on Thornton Dial

Please fill in the fields marked with an asterisk

* denotes required fields

In order to respond to your enquiry, we will process the personal data you have supplied in accordance with our privacy policy (available on request). You can unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time by clicking the link in our emails.