James Thomas: Immersion in Collage

After serving in the Air Force during World War II, James Thomas studied at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1949. That summer he certainly read the August issue of LIFE magazine, which featured a 2-page spread showing the irascible Jackson Pollock in front of one of his big drip-action paintings. The headline read: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” That tongue-in-cheek headline elicited more letters than any other article LIFE received that year — and most of those letters were derisive. The public simply could not comprehend why Pollock was getting a thousand or two dollars for paintings that, as the old saw goes, “even my kid could paint.” But that article also intrigued a new generation of artists and collectors.

Here’s the back-drop. Before the war, the cultured elite would spend their money on the French Impressionists like Monet and Renoir while the intelligentsia of the avant-garde collected the early modernists such as Braque and Picasso. Now, the allied forces had just won World War II. Munich, Berlin, and Dusseldorf had been reduced to rubble. Paris was free to resume its position as the capital of the art world. But the LIFE magazine article announced a role change. It announced Pollock as the great disruptor. No sooner had Paris been freed of the Nazis than the Abstract Expressionists had won another war: New York displaced Paris as the epicenter of the art world. Rothko, DeKooning, Still, Kline and others joined Pollock in a movement whose repercussions would continue to exert their influence on generations of artists.

Thomas left for New York in 1951, inexorably drawn by the unstoppable waves of a powerful new movement that were emanating throughout the art world. He found his footing at the Art Students League studying under Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Julian Levi and their influence can be seen in his oil paintings of this period. He then returned to the Corcoran for a year before going on to compete his undergraduate work at George Washington University. Finally, he earned his MFA at Cornell University in 1955. For the next eleven years his career path appeared to be teaching art as he took positions at several colleges. At the same time he continued to exhibit with his colleagues of the Abingdon Square Painters group in Greenwich Village. But in 1966 he suddenly withdrew from teaching altogether and became increasingly reclusive, suffering bouts with deep depression and alcohol — a combination that has sent many brilliant artists into the caves of the forgotten.

Fortunately, Thomas had discovered his artistic purpose by focusing upon collage beginning in 1963. Collage is at once medium, technique, and style — and during the 1950s it became part of an innovative and international vocabulary. It was in collage that Thomas reached his maturation despite his dark personal problems. His niece Carole Boster noted that “By the mid 1960s Thomas was working almost entirely in this medium, gluing bits of things to canvas or wallboard and then coating the entire work with a sepia wash with a tar-like appearance. He harvested the detritus of modern life, favoring bits of debris found along the roadside: nuts and bolts, shards of scrap metal, cast-off paper bags and plastic coffee cup lids.”

Willem de Kooning [1903–1997] had briefly worked in collage during the late 1940s, but this medium was most fully developed by his Italian-American colleague Conrad Marca-Relli [1913–2000]. From the 1950s and throughout his long career Marca-Relli produced large-scale collages often layered with fabric, leather, metal, or vinyl in contrasting shapes of black and dark earth tones against lighter shapes of whites, creams, and beiges. Thomas adopted a similar color scheme. Another leading first generation Abstract Expressionist who pushed the collage tradition was the Italian Alberto Burri [1915–1995] who incorporated a range of fabrics, burlap, and plastics with tar and pigments. By the mid 1950s he was pioneering the movement of collage toward assemblage as his works revealed an increasingly deeper third dimension by using plastics, charred wood, and scrap iron sheets. Joining Burri in his international impact was the Spaniard Antoni Tapies [1923–2012] who in the early 1950s began mixing non-traditional materials in a style he referred to as pintura matèrica.  In New York, the collision of collage and assemblage was brought to another level from the mid 1950s to 1961 when Robert Rauschenberg [1925–2008] began to position objects emerging dramatically from the surface of his painted canvases. Pushing collage deeper into three dimensions, he called this series of assemblages “combine paintings.”

This international dialogue of collage and assemblage continued into the tumultuous 1960s, a decade when even the Abstract Expressionists — those great disruptors — were in turn upset. It was a decade of seismic consequences. All bets were off. The art world exploded with a succession of new and disparate movements ranging from Pop Art to Hard Edge and from Minimalism to Op Art. Each was an overlapping assault reacting against, or morphing from, Abstract Expressionism. Collage and assemblage were part of that assault. Thomas must have been aware of the 1961 exhibition, “The Art of Assemblage,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which featured a range of masters from Braque and Picasso through the contemporaries Robert Rauschenberg and Bruce Connor [1933–2008]. By the late 1950s Connor had begun to push his paintings and collages into assemblages with a wide range of disparate objects never intended as art materials. Sari Dienes [1898–1992] was an important but nearly forgotten pioneer in collage and assemblage in late 1940s. During the mid 1950s she exhibited at Betty Parsons Gallery a series of collages made with found objects as well as rubbings from the city’s sidewalks on large sheets of paper. Among her studio assistants were the young Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Her works were also included in the American Federation of Arts touring exhibition Art and the Found Object in 1958-59 as well as the MoMA assemblage exhibition of 1961.

In 1963 the collage/assemblage movement caught Thomas’s imagination and he began to integrate into his compositions those flattened and crushed objects that are the refuse of our consumer culture. At this time the Arte Povera movement coming out of Italy reinforced his efforts. These artists revived the use of found objects such as fabrics, paper, rope, clothing, scraps of wood, metals, and even rocks.  Arte Povera was the opposite of Minimalism and all of the other art movements concurrently vying for attention in America. Its spiritual genesis must be credited fifty years earlier to Marcel Duchamp, that pioneer of the Dada movement whose “readymade” works set the tone for generations of conceptualist artists of the 1960s–70s and beyond.

Inspired by the assemblage movement, from 1963 until his death in 1994, Thomas’s approach to collage was to utilize nature’s castaways and society’s detritus in their crushed forms, subtly projecting in bas relief from the flat picture plane. Sadly, his considerable accomplishment went unrecognized — a victim of his personal demons. Late in life he even remodeled part of his home as a gallery, as if that transformative act would in itself invite viewers. But, ultimately, Thomas must have seen himself as a castaway for no one ever saw the private gallery in his Rockville, Maryland, home that ultimately fell to the wrecking ball.


— Peter Hastings Falk, May 2016