Treasures from the Vault: Yvonne Thomas

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

One of our newest additions to the collection, Devotion, is a painting by Yvonne Thomas, who was center stage during the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and 50s. Just now, however, this 9th Street artist is beginning to have her moment. In an era when women often weren’t permitted to achieve greatness because of their gender, several, like Thomas, were able to push through and receive recognition. Though Thomas was not given the opportunities then, her stock is rising now!

Born in 1913 in Nice, France, Thomas emigrated to the United States in 1925. She began training at The Cooper Union (one of the first colleges to be founded on the belief that education should be accessible to everyone who qualifies, without bias towards race, religion, sex, wealth, or social status), but was forced to leave when the Depression struck. In order to survive, Thomas started out as a fashion illustrator and commercial artist, quitting in 1938 to become a full-time artist. She attended the Art Students League in New York and briefly attended Ozenfant School of Fine Art in France. Early in her training she became acquainted with Patricia Matta, wife of the famous Surrealist artist Roberto Matta, who introduced her to a group of abstract painters. Thomas’ involvement led to her enrolling as one of five students to Subjects of the Artist, an experimental school run by Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, William Baziotes, and David Hare. The “school” did not have formal classes; instead, students worked side-by-side with their instructors and received critiques while creating. In her studies she was taught not how to replicate old masters but how her feelings should be the only subject. Working alongside with the abstract power-houses of the day would have provided invaluable lessons! Although the school only lasted one year, it gave Thomas the connections and training she needed to formulate her own artistic style. She later recalled that it was her time spent at the Subjects of the Artist that helped her transition from artist-in-training to an Abstract Expressionist, authentically creating and using only her own intellect and philosophic ideas for her work. In 1950, she continued her development with artist Hans Hoffman in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Hoffman taught her the power of color, use of positive and negative space, and how the overall dimensions affect the work.

By the time the famed 9th Street exhibit took place in 1951, Thomas was nearly 40 years old and an already accomplished artist. In a 1960 review of Thomas’ works at the Stuttman Gallery in Manhattan by Donald Judd, he stated: “…Wide brush strokes and sweeps of color glissade to plane of the bare canvas. The paint and canvas are identified with one another continued into each other, and the consequent speed and thinness of the surface engender the clarity and singleness of the poetry.” Although not as well-known as the main five women featured in 9th Street Women, the book by Mary Gabriel, there’s no doubt they ran in the same circles. Thomas may have helped develop those that followed her, being more trained in abstract techniques, whereas newbies Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler were just getting started.

Yvonne Thomas, American, b. France, 1913-2009. Devotion. Oil on canvas, 1953. Gift of Melveena C. Gabriel Revocable Trust in memory of Richard C. Gabriel, 2021.30. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Devotion, created in 1953, is one of her earlier works. In the early 1950s the color palette she developed was heavily influenced by bright, summer colors and her grandmother’s garden. For Thomas, color was the strongest joy and enigma, and she utilized it in an expressive range to convey her emotional responses to nature. Being an abstract work, we get to create our own narrative of what we see. Personally, I see a fiery red sunset over clusters of green, blue, and deep purple-red brush in her grandmother’s garden, or looking out at large trees in an empty field. What do you feel when looking at it? I feel an intense somberness and a calm chaos, as if she sat down to a colorful sunset after a hectic day. The main color is definitely red, which often symbolizes passion, energy, power, confidence, and anger. Does that change how you feel when looking at it?

I enjoy following auctions and the results of what price artworks fetch on the market. Recently, Yvonne Thomas’ paintings exploded in value: from the $2,000-3,000 range to selling in the $50,000-over $100,000 range… within a year! This seems to be a popular trend for many of the unknown abstract artists who are being discovered each year, shifting their work out from anonymity into a spotlight that is well deserved.

Acquired from the Melveena C. Gabriel Trust, Yvonne Thomas’ painting was accessioned in early 2021 with other notable artists like Mary Abbott, Richard Serra, and Pablo Picasso. Unfortunately, Melveena C. Gabriel passed away, leaving her estate to her nephew, Richard, who then also passed away unexpectedly. Richard, a Fort Wayne native, although living in Chicago, dispersed his estate to many organizations–his and his aunt’s art was bequeathed to FWMoA. Highlighting the artist is always a top priority, but knowing the artist’s story sheds light on the collectors who donate the works, and vice versa. Having works by both Yvonne Thomas and Mary Abbott, who have only had exposure in the last five years, shows the support given to these unrecognized artists, especially considering Thomas’ painting is from very early in her career, and the eye many collectors possess for exemplary works of art.

Interested in learning more about 9th Street? Come to From 9th Street to Main Street: An Evening with Bob Cross here at FWMoA on February 18th at 6pm to hear Cross speak on his mission to push forward the talents of abstract artists in Northeast Indiana, which stems from his time, in the 1970s, as a master printer at Tyler Graphics in New York City. He collaborated on producing prints with David Hockney, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, and many others. Cross connects the dots between the New York City 1950s exhibition that established the American and modern art movement to the 2020s and northern Indiana’s impact on abstract art. 

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