Yvonne Thomas was born in Nice, France, in 1913, and arrived with her family in the United States in 1925. After first settling in Boston, the family moved to New York, where Thomas studied briefly at Cooper Union. When her parents could not afford her tuition due to the Great Depression, she turned to commercial work, supporting herself as a fashion illustrator.
In 1938, she chose to devote herself to art, enrolling at the Art Students League, where she studied with Vaclav Vytacil and took lessons in the figure and portraiture from the Russian painter Dmitri Romanovsky. She also attended the Ozenfant School of Fine Art, where the French Cubist emigrée Amadée Ozenfant introduced her to the modernist precepts to which she would be devoted throughout the rest of her career. In 1948, Patricia Matta, the wife of the artist Roberto Matta, provided Thomas with an introduction to the Subjects of the Artists School. Situated in a loft at 23 East 8th Street, the school consisted of participants who were considered “collaborators” rather than teacher-and-student. The artists in the school were leading figures in the American avant-garde, with whom Thomas interacted on an equal footing. They included William Baziotes, David Hare, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. At the Subjects of the Artists School, Thomas felt she had “finally come home.”
In 1950, Thomas studied with Hofmann at his school in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She credits him with giving her the “courage of color.” In the next year, she took part in the first of a series of annual exhibitions of abstract art, that became legendary. The first—the Ninth Street Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture—was held at 60 East 9th Street in Greenwich Village in May and June of 1951. The Stable Gallery on Seventh Avenue at Fifty-Eighth Street was the venue for subsequent shows, held from 1953 to 1957. The exhibitions enabled women artists to exhibit abstract works for which they had few opportunities otherwise, whereas male colleagues, who had more representation, were gaining recognition more broadly. Thomas was one of few artists to be included in all five of the Ninth Street shows. She was also a member the exclusive Artist’s Club, a gathering of artists and intellectuals, which was only for male artists when it began in 1949.
In the mid-1950s, Thomas loosened the Cubist structures she had used earlier, employing more gestural handling to create works that were more expressively free. Thomas’s first solo exhibition occurred in 1954 at Hendler Gallery in Philadelphia. The following year, Thomas was one of eleven artists represented in a show at the Riverside Museum, New York, where her work was shown alongside that of Franz Kline, Milton Avery, Kenzo Okada, and Leon Polk Smith.
In April 1960, after a year spent in Paris, Thomas had her second New York show, which was held at the Esther Stuttman Gallery in New York. It included some paintings rendered in Paris along with recent New York works. Thomas had another solo exhibition in 1961, held at Galerie Agnes Lefort in Montreal. In 1962 through 1964, Thomas was featured in one-artist shows in New York; Aspen, Colorado; and East Hampton, New York. By the time her work was featured at the Rose Fried Gallery in May of 1965, she had developed the more geometric and structural approach of the art in the current exhibition.
Thomas continued to paint and actively exhibit her art until the end of her life. A show of her “yellow paintings” was held in 2006 at Lohin Geluld Gallery in New York. She was featured in several group shows in 2008, a year before her death.
In 2016, she was one of the artists included in the Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibition catalogue, a traveling exhibition organized by the Denver Art Museum. The accompanying catalogue, consisting of essays by several scholars, celebrated “the special contributions of women to Abstract Expressionism,” providing an “essential corrective” to what has been the “unequal accounting of women’s contributions” to the movement. Like other women who embraced abstraction, Thomas did not gain renown equal to that of the male artists of her time. However, a consideration of her career reveals that the issues she addressed, the organizations in which she took part, and the zeitgeist of her art gave her a central role in the avant-garde movement that she embraced.
Atlantic Richfield, Los Angeles, CA
Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
Ciba-Geigy Collection, Greensboro, NC
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
First Pennsylvania Bank, Philadelphia, PA
Fondacion National D'Art Contemporain, Paris, France
Guggenheim Museum, New York
Loeb Center, New York University, New York
Metropolitan Insurance Company, New York
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Riverside Museum, New York