Jane Fonda is Parting With Works From Her Favorite Art Family

Thornton Dial
Thornton Dial, Untitled (Animal Bench in Red and White), 1989-90. All images courtesy of the artist and Christie's.

Jane Fonda, CULTURED cover star and Academy Award-winning actress, is putting pieces from her personal art collection up for auction at Christie’s. Fourteen works—amassed over the course of two decades—by Thornton Dial, his brother Arthur Dial, and son Thornton Dial Jr. will be featured at the auction house's "Outsider and Vernacular Art" sale on Jan. 18. Nearing its seventh year, Christie's annual affair centers on pieces by self-taught artists whose work reflects their power to capture the feelings and impulses of their respective communities.

Fonda’s collection began in earnest after her first meeting with the late art historian, collector, and curator William Sidney Arnett. A promoter and patron of Southern Black artists such as Thornton, Arnett’s collection served to expand Fonda’s tastes beyond the California-centric plein air paintings that made up the majority of her collection at the time. Upon meeting, Fonda bought several paintings from Arnett on the spot, and later began acquainting herself with the artists he sponsored. She did, however, remain most drawn to Thornton. Fonda has credited his works as making “powerful statements about the challenges faced in the Jim Crow South," and applauds his and others' ability to repurpose environmental materials into art. 

One such example is the artist's Untitled, 1993, a huge construction consisting of wire, gloves, and cloth.  Even his more traditional canvases—such as the oil on wood painting Everyone’s Got a Right to the Tree of Life, 1988—assert the importance of self-determination and agency.

Thornton, the child of Alabama sharecroppers, became an artist after the railroad car factory he worked at shut down. After a widely acclaimed career, he passed at the age of 87 in 2016. The other two artists in the family, Thornton's younger brother and son, also spent time in industrial metalworking, a background reflected prominently in their mixed media pieces.

Christie’s "Outsider and Vernacular Art" auction’s title reflects the featured pieces’ expressiveness and unconventionality, rather than specific, traditoinal acheivments. From Arthur’s huge, fro-toting depiction of Eve and Adam, 1989, to Thornton’s provocative mixed-media canvas Old Birmingham, 1989-90, the pieces defy any and all conventional terms.