Thornton Dial (10 September 1928 – 25 January 2016) 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 Mr. Dial’s works were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014.
Thornton Dial was born in 1928 to a teen-age mother, Mattie Bell, on a former cotton plantation in Emelle, Alabama, where relatives in his extended family worked as sharecroppers. He lived with his mother until he was around three when Dial and his half-brother Arthur moved in with their second cousin, Buddy Jake Dial, who was a farmer. When Thornton moved in with Buddy Jake, he farmed and learned about the sculptures that Buddy Jake made from items lying around the yard, an experience that greatly influenced him. Dial grew up in poverty and without the presence of his father.
In 1940, when he was twelve, Dial moved to Bessemer, Alabama. When he arrived in Bessemer, he noticed the art along the way in people's yard and was amazed at the level of craft exhibited. He married Clara Mae Murrow in 1951. They have five children, one of whom died of cerebral palsy. The late artist Ronald Lockett was his cousin.
His principal place of employment was as a metalworker at the Pullman Standard Plant in Bessemer, Alabama, which made railroad cars. The plant closed its doors in 1981.After the Pullman factory shut down, Dial began to dedicate himself to his art for his own pleasure. In 1987, he was introduced to Bill Arnett, a local art collector of great influence who brought Dial's work to public attention.
Dial lived, worked, and created art in Alabama for his entire life.
Dial's work has been exhibited throughout the United States since 1990.
2012-13 Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (organizing museum); Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont, Burlington; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama; and the Knoxville Museum of Art, Tennessee.
2005 Thornton Dial in the 21st Century, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
2002-04 In the Spirit of Martin, Smithsonian Institution
2000 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
1998 Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology, Philadelphia Museum
1993 Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; American Folk Art Museum, New York; American Center, Paris
2016 Thornton Dial: We All Live Under the Same Old Flag, Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York
2015 Thornton Dial: Works on Paper, Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York
2013 Thornton Dial: Daybreak, Bill Lowe Gallery, Atlanta
2012 Thornton Dial: Viewpoint of the Foundry Man, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
2012 The Art of Thornton Dial, Art6 Gallery, Richmond.
2011 All Folked Up, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
2011 Thornton Dial: The Beginning of Days, Bill Lowe Gallery, Atlanta
The Armory Show, Andrew Edlin Gallery
1999 Thornton Dial: His Spoken Dreams, Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York
1992 Thornton Dial: Works on Paper, Luise Ross Gallery, New York
1991 Thornton Dial, Sr.: Works on Paper, Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York
1990 Thornton Dial: Strategy of the World, Southern Queens Park Association/African-American Hall of Fame, Jamaica, New York
Thornton Dial, Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta
Thornton Dial: Ladies of the United States, Library Art Gallery, Kennesaw State College, Marietta, Georgia Gallery 721, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 1995 - 2012
Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, NC
American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY
Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL
Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, NY
Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, MI
Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, TN
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN
Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, IN
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, AL
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, NY
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, IL
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
Virginia Union University, Richmond, VA
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
Road to the Mountaintop (sculpture) (2014), Nashville, TN
The Bridge (sculpture) (1997), Atlanta, GA