White Male Art Critic Blake Gopnik criticizes Alma Thomas’s paintingOriental Sunset. 

According to Gopnik the painting, Oriental Sunset was “casually made— just a bunch of haphazard red brush-strokes sitting on a yellow ground”.

Who is Blake Gopnik? critic-at-large for ArtNews, he spent a decade as Art Critic for the Washington Post and works for assorted publications critically reviewing ART. Despite his vast experience in art reviewing … Blake Gopnik can not effectively review ART outside of the white contemporary world because he lacks tabula rasa.

ta·bu·la ra·sa ˈtäbyo͝olə ˈräsə,ˈräzə/noun
1.  an absence of preconceived ideas or predetermined goals; a clean slate. the human mind, especially at birth, viewed as having no innate ideas.

Tabula rasa is greatly diminished in every human being by the time they reach maturity.  Your clean slate will be almost exhausted of free space if you lived in a closed society and were educated in a system that is unchallenged and promises rich rewards for completing courses from prescribed schools of thought (resulting in the issuance of MFAs, BFAs and PHDs).  After you have finished your schooling, there is just no room left in your brain for experiencing anything outside of what you perceive to be the absolute truth about the world.  In addition, you will face economic loss and lose respect in your tight knit community if you try to venture beyond your training.
What was Blake Gopnik’s, a 53 year old white male of privilege, reaction to the work of an 82 year old black woman who studied at the same school of thought as his ART heroes.
 Apr 8, 2015

THE DAILY PIC:  Alma Thomas, an African American artist from Washington, painted “Oriental Sunset” in 1973. It’s now in her solo show at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York.

For all its eye-appeal, what especially interests me is how casually the picture seems to be made – just a bunch of haphazard red brushstrokes sitting on a yellow ground. That distinguishes it from any number of precedents: from the extreme care and discipline of tidy formalists such as Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland; from the expressionist gestures of Pollock and his crew, for whom every pictorial gesture was (over-)ripe with meaning; and even from the completely arbitrary gestures of conceptual painting, where there doesn’t seem to be any volition, of any kind, behind what happens on the canvas.

Thomas seems to occupy a lovely middle-ground of just-good-enough painting–the painterly equivalent of a floor well-enough swept, a letter well-enough written, a soup well-enough cooked. That is, it’s painting that reflects the lives of all the millions of people (including many women) who haven’t had the luxury to perseverate over perfection. It echoes–and provides–the special middle-ground pleasures of domestic life.
Gopnik, without considering how he is thinking, does what comes natural to his thinking – he compares Alma Thomas to Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland and Jackson Pollack — people whose work he greatly respects.  Then he negates the experience of Alma Thomas by using words to describe the context in which he sees the artist — not the work.  Gopnik says, “a floor well swept, a soup well-enough cooked”, “painting that reflects the lives of all the millions (including women) of those who haven’t had the luxury to perseverate over perfection”.
WOW! – it’s not an objective review but an implied insult. He says de facto,
I don’t have to look at your work objectively, you are not suppose to be in my world so go back to your domestic life and take those women and all the masses with you – enough of this.   
Gopnik justifies his implications by deriding the artist brush strokes he says, “what especially interests me is how casually the picture seems to be made – just a bunch of haphazard red brushstrokes sitting on a yellow ground.  below is a photograph of the sun – Alma Thomas’s composition is called, Oriental Sunset.   
Look into the photo of the SUN – squint your eyes and stare for a minute. You will see the two colors with which Alma Thomas recreated the individual shapes of each speck with a deliberateness of intent – nothing haphazard here. The casualness of execution that Gopnik sensed and tried to dismiss as a negative, is the ease of Alma’s mind/eye/hand control, she makes it look easy
Gopnik goes on to compare Alma Thomas, a black woman born in 1891, to White male painters, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland and Jackson Pollack. Lets look at their art and the attributes Gopnik attaches to them.

Gopnik asserts ALMA’S work does not distinguish itself from any of the above precedents. OK, let’s look at some of Alma’s work and what history has said about her legacy …
ALMA THOMAS, a woman for all ages – growing and changing with time, a master of her ART.
Snoopy Sees a Daybreak on Earth, 1970
acrylic on canvas 40″ x 35″
Thomas’s systematic investigation of color and stunning modern canvases began to attract national attention beginning in the late 1960s.
In 1972, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a solo exhibition of her work, making Thomas the first African American to receive a one-woman show at the institution and earning four separate critical reviews from the New York Times.

Title: Unknown 1, 1977

watercolor and pencil on paper
31 x 40 inches

Acclaim for her work and person rose steadily through that decade, until her death in 1978.

In addition to the Whitney and Corcoran shows, Thomas’s work was exhibited nationally and internationally during her lifetime, including the35th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting


In addition to the Whitney and Corcoran shows, Thomas’s work was exhibited nationally and internationally during her lifetime, including the35th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting and at the White House. 


Alma Thomas is represented in the holdings of such major museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Howard University Gallery of Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Art Institute of Chicago, and Museum of Art (Georgia).


 Alma Thomas worked for more than twenty-five years in a relatively representational mode, incorporating elements from the styles of Cézanne and Matisse. She altered her approach late in her career to one that showed her assimilation of abstract expressionism and the focus on color that dominated the work of the Washington Color School painters.
Thomas incorporated aspects of their styles—strong design, large-scale format, and pure colors—into her abstractions. However, she favored a more gestural style, drawing pencil lines, which are usually visible in the finished work, and retaining active brushstrokes.
SO in the end the ‘push back’ …
Blake Gopniik is not the enemy, he is a person who is caught up in changing times. Despite his qualifications he does not have the education or experience to review ART by those outside his peer group.  I do know, that Institutions do not want push back as they try to even the playing field.  So I suspect that there will be openings for a few OTHERS to review Black Art In America.
BLAKE GOPNIK responded to BAIA’s twitter and addressed what he really meant in his review.  In all fairness to our readers and to Mr. Gopnick, please read his response for yourself.  

OK for the moment, this is going to be laid to rest. We thank our members for their comments.  Your responses brought to the table some very insightful points of view that need to be further explored and discussed.   

Thank you.      RM Crews, NRM / Do You Basel? for Black Art in America.  (BAIA Archives: originally posted June 15/2015)