By the end of her career, Alma Thomas enjoyed considerable critical and popular success. She was the first African American female artist to be given a solo show at the Whitney Museum, in 1972. Her works were accessioned by major museums across the country, and featured prominently in key exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles. But it is unlikely Thomas could have imagined how her reputation would continue to grow after her death at 86 in 1978, so much that she is now one of the most beloved abstract painters of the past century.

The adulation is deserved, but can make it difficult to see her work clearly, a challenge the curators of “Alma Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful” confront directly in a major retrospective at the Phillips Collection in Washington.

Organized by the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk and the Columbus Museum in Georgia, the exhibition largely concerns Thomas’s time in Washington, where she lived most of her life. Thomas moved to the city from Georgia with her family when she was 16, studied art at Howard University, taught art at Shaw Junior High School for 35 years, and played a key role in the development of an independent and robust arts scene in the nation’s capital. The Phillips show is part of a citywide celebration of Thomas’s work, including a symposium introduced by former first lady Michelle Obama in September at the National Gallery of Art and, through January, events at Howard University and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, among other institutions.

Standard accounts of Thomas’s life suggest that her retirement from teaching in 1960 was the essential pivot point in her artistic development. After a life of service, she suddenly had freedom to explore and develop her talent, and she quickly found her stylistic identity in an abstract idiom that used broken brushstrokes and basic, nonfigurative geometries to explore bright juxtapositions.

That’s partly true. But the exhibition includes key paintings from the 1950s to show that Thomas’s work was tending toward abstraction long before she retired from teaching and that she was active as an artist throughout her adult life, including while at Shaw. The show also uses archival material to argue for a holistic approach to Thomas’s artistic identity, a seamlessness that includes no major breaks, such as retiring from teaching or discovering abstraction. Art was integral to her work at Shaw, to the design of her home on 15th Street NW, to the cultivation of her garden, to the way she dressed and her social life.

The exhibition also includes photographs and documents to demonstrate that Thomas was not apolitical or disengaged from the civil rights movement. Her art didn’t confront racism, exclusion or prejudice directly, but she worked with her students in the 1930s to celebrate what was then known as Negro History Week and she made a sketch, also in the show, of the massive 1963 March on Washington.

The exhibition title, “Everything Is Beautiful,” also hints at the larger argument. Art wasn’t an escape from life, or politics or conflict, but rather the assertion of an aesthetic ideal — that finding, elevating, preserving and disseminating beauty is essential to our survival. Beautiful is a strong word, and artists, critics and scholars are chary of it. Related ideas, such as “everything is pretty” or “everything is nice,” suggest a simple-mindedness that is trivial. But “Everything Is Beautiful” is a daring, even dangerous way to approach life, especially when so much of life is manifestly ugly.

The exhibition proves that Thomas’s achievement of beauty was hard won. She was not a seer or mage who instinctively channeled beauty. She worked for it and didn’t always achieve it. The idea that Thomas morphed suddenly into a genius upon retirement lingers, perhaps, because there is a significant change, and improvement, in her work in the 1960s. In her early abstractions, she struggles to unify the washes of color, which so inspired the Washington Color School painters, with the exploration of line and marks. Her early landscapes, urban scenes and figures are often awkward. A room that explores other painters active in mid-century Washington clearly shows Thomas grappling with painters, including Jacob Kainen, who had, at the time, a stronger vision.

When she settles on the broken brushstroke, organized loosely but rhythmically, the artist comes into her own. Now she has a medium in which to explore color and the confrontation of colors across the spectrum while keeping everything in visual harmony. Thomas’s target forms, concentric circles of color laid down in broken brushstrokes, are a world away from their seeming cousins made by Jasper Johns more than a decade earlier. Her round forms often spill out of the frame, or agitate the space around them, such that they represent not things or signs, but states of existence. Like Van Gogh’s brush work, Thomas’s imputes electricity or some other unseen energy to the whole of the universe. Perhaps that is her idea of beauty.

The exhibition reaches its apex with the 1976 “Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music,” on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Unlike the target images, or Thomas’s studies in vertical lines or color rows, “Red Azaleas” is largely monochromatic. It is a large work, more than 13 feet wide, painted on three panels. Created late in the artist’s life, when she was suffering from arthritis and ill health, it is a major achievement from a purely physical standpoint.

But it also shows Thomas exploring not just the organization of energy, but also its dissolution. Red marks, less formal and more diverse than her usual brushstrokes, cluster together in the first panel, grow more diffuse and disorganized in the second, and finally begin to break apart in the third. Thomas liked to listen to music while working, so perhaps that explains the title. But azaleas, which are so prolific in Washington, are also seasonal. They burst and die. If there’s a hint of mortality in this key work, it is mortality tempered by the idea that governs the show: Everything Is Beautiful.

In the early 1970s, Thomas painted several works that reference NASA and the exploration of space. It’s hard to remember, but the early years of the space program offered one of the few bright spots in American life at the time. The country was coming apart racially, economically and politically; it was riven by hypocrisy and corruption. In 1968, more than 1,000 fires erupted in Washington as protests and riots broke out after the April 4 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The destruction was evident all around Thomas’s neighborhood, and residents would have grappled with it just as the azaleas began to bloom.

The space program seemed to represent a different America. Less than a year after the riots, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, and in 1971 the first space probe entered Mars’s orbit. Among the two most striking works in the show are “Mars Reflection” and “Mars Dust,” both made in 1972. The Mars reference seems to be mainly through the use of red. But in these two works, and several others, Thomas also limits her palette and carefully calibrates a sense of foreground and background, as if the red brushstrokes are a kind of screen hiding or blotting out of the darker blue of space.

The two colors are mesmerizing together. And both works suggest something about how we choose to see the world, and what we register from the field of perception. Perhaps this is Thomas elaborating on the idea of beauty: Keep it ever in the foreground.

Alma Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful Through Jan. 23 at the Phillips Collection. phillipscollection.org.