Thornton Dial (American, b.1928) is a self-taught artist from Emelle, AL, known for his large-scale assemblages that address issues of racism, war, and homelessness. Often referred to as an “Outsider artist,” Dial received no formal training, but, from a young age, was given to constructing sculptures from found objects and other recycled materials, a technique he would utilize in his later work. After settling in Birmingham before World War II, Dial spent nearly 50 years working in construction, building highways, houses, and boxcars for the Pullman Company. During this time, Dial witnessed many of the most important moments in 20th-century African American life, including sharecropping in the Black Belt, migration to cities, and the Civil Rights Movement, all of which profoundly influenced his work.

After the Pullman factory closed in the early 1980s, Dial continued to pursue artistic endeavors, and eventually came to the attention of influential, Atlanta-based collector Bill Arnett. Arnett went on to bring Dial’s work to national prominence, and encouraged the artist to try his hand at painting and drawing.

Dial's works can be found in notable public and private collections, including the High Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the American Folk Art Museum, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; and the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Timeline

1928
Born in Emelle, AL

Exhibitions

2013
Thornton Dial: Daybreak. Bill Lowe Gallery, Atlanta (*with works by Dial family members)
2013
Seismic Shifts: Ten Visionaries in Contemporary Art and Architecture. National Academy Museum & School, New York, NY
2012–2013
Thoughts on Paper. Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, NC, Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont, Burlington, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (solo)
2011–2013
Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial. Indianapolis Museum of Art, New Orleans Museum of Art, Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA (solo)
2012
Thornton Dial: Viewpoint of the Foundry Man, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York, NY (solo)
2012
Thornton Dial, Virginia Union University and Art Gallery, Richmond, VA (solo)
2012
Thornton Dial and Lizzi Bougatsos, James Fuentes, New York, NY
2012
The Soul of a City: Memphis Collects African American Art. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN
2012
Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial. The Frist Center for Visual Arts, Nashville, TN
2011
The Armory Show, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York, NY
2011
Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York, NY (solo)
2011
Disaster Areas, Lowe Gallery, Atlanta, GA (solo)
2005
Thornton Dial in the 21st Century, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX (solo)
2002–2004
In the Spirit of Martin, Smithsonian Institution, traveling
2000
Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
1999
Thornton Dial: His Spoken Dreams, Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York, NY (solo)
1998
Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology, Philadelphia Museum, PA
1993
Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger. New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; American Folk Art Museum, New York; Milwaukee Art Museum, WI (solo)
1992
Thornton Dial: Works on Paper, Luise Ross Gallery, New York, NY (solo)
1991
Thornton Dial, Sr.: Works on Paper, Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York, NY (solo)
1990
Thornton Dial: Strategy of the World. Southern Queens Park Association/African-American Hall of Fame, Jamaica, NY (solo)
1990
Thornton Dial. Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta, GA (solo)
1990
Dial: Ladies of the United States. Library Art Gallery, Kennesaw State College, Marietta, GA (solo)

Public Collections

Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, IL
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY
Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL
The Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Intuit, Chicago, IL
Milwaukee Art Museum, WI
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
New Orleans Museum of Art, LA

Literature

2012
Thornton Dial: Viewpoint of the Foundry Man. catalogue, Andrew Edlin Gallery
2012
Creation Story: Gee's Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial. catalogue, Frist Center for the Visual Arts and Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville
2011
Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper. edited by Bernard L. Herman, Ackland Art Museum and University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill
2011
Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial. catalogue, Prestel
2011
Kuspit, Donald. Review, Art Forum, Summer
2011
Wilkin, Karen. “Biography, History, Self-Evident Beauty.” The Wall Street Journal, April 21
2011
Doran, Anne. Review, Time Out New York, April 14-20
2011
Review, The New Yorker, April 11
2011
Lacayo, Richard. “Outside the Lines.” Time, March 14
2011
Kino, Carol. “Letting His Life’s Work Do the Talking.” New York Times, February 20
2011
Gómez, Edward M. “On the Border.” Art & Antiques Magazine, February
2010
Jones, Phillip March. “Thornton Dial, Sr.” Whitehot Magazine, February
2009
Outsider Art Sourcebook. Raw Vision
2005
Thornton Dial in the 21st Century, catalogue, Tinwood
2002
Giovanni, Nikki; Chassman, Gary Miles; Leonard, Walter. In the Spirit of Martin, Tinwood Books
2001
American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum. catalogue
2000–2001
Souls Grown Deep. Volumes 1 and 2, Arnett et al
1997
Smith, Dinitia, “Bits, Pieces and a Drive To Turn Them Into Art.” New York Times, February 5
1993
Smith, Roberta. “A Young Style for an Old Story.” New York Times, December 19
1993
Scott, Sue. “Thornton Dial [exhibition review].” ARTnews 92, April
1993
Lloyd, Ann Wilson. “Thornton Dial at Luise Ross.” Art in America, May
1993
Passionate Visions of the American South, Self Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present, New Orleans Museum of Art
1993
20th Century American Folk, Self-Taught, and Outsider Art, Neal-Schuman Publishers
1991
Kuspit, Donald. “The Appropriation of Marginal Art in the 1980s.” American Art, Winter/Spring
1990
Museum of Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists. Abbeville Press
1987
Kroll, Jack. “The Outsiders Are In: American Folk Artists Move into the World of Money and Fame.” Newsweek, December 2