Summary of Bob Thompson
With a life cut short by a combination of illness and addiction, Thompson's career spanned just eight years. But in that intensely productive period (he averaged one painting every three days) the African-American artist had succeeded in creating a highly individualistic style. Thompson's painting, which synthesized elements of classical and modern European art, defied the standards for pure abstraction as practiced by others in the New York School, yet retained something of its spontaneity and scale. Thompson took his cues from the improvisational attitude of jazz music, creating vividly colored, phantastical, paintings that typically feature loosely defined human and animal forms that came to symbolize the forces of good and evil that tormented his conflicted psyche.
- Thompson's art blended narrative elements in a style that left room for gestural brushstrokes and spontaneous mark-making. He was hugely inspired by the spontaneity of the modern "jazz jam" and transferred some of that feeling of freedom to his painting. Works such as Ornette (1960-61), and Homage to Nina Simone (1964-65), best represent Thompson's love of the New York avant-garde music scene and are suggestive of how jazz music might be visualized in the mind of the musicians, many of whom were his personal friends.
- Thompson took the early career advice of Dody Müller, the widow of the New York artist, Jan Müller - "Don't ever look for your solutions from contemporaries, look at Old Masters" - to heart and fostered a great love and admiration for European classicism. Thompson reinterpreted many iconic compositions, by figures such as Piero della Francesca, Francisco de Goya, and Nicolas Poussin, in his own inimitable style. The art critic Jackson Arn wrote, "it took guts to mix chunky figuration and the Old Masters [...] to horse around in the neutral zone between the passionately handmade and the coolly copied".
- Thompson's modern allegorical nightmares were reflective of the artist's distressed state of mind. The figures that populate his landscapes often appear as grotesque beings or oversized mythical animals. Thompson was fascinated by the conflicts between good and evil with many of his paintings reading as metaphors for the fight between the rational and irrational forces of nature. His paintings were often defined by the spheres of order and chaos and the relationship between man, animals, and nature.
- Although his art aligned with the interests and concerns of the Civil Rights movement (such as inter-racial relationships), Thompson's resisted the calling amongst certain African-American artists to create unambiguous narratives representing black suffrage in contemporary America. Thompson belonged to that group of artists who objected to their art being categorized, rather his Fauvist-like simplification of forms and clashing of color convey a primordial, phantastical, intensity that has earned him the label of "figurative abstractionist".
The Life of Bob Thompson
"Curator Diana Tuite writes,"[Thompson] brings to his work a profound understanding and relentless curiosity about what it takes to put a composition together [...] that is the reason that so many artists return to the work, live with the works, and want to continue to turn the work over in their minds".
Progression of Art
The Funeral of Jan Müller
The Funeral of Jan Müller depicts the funeral service of the artist that took place in Truro, Massachusetts. It is an homage to Müller's legacy as a formative figurative expressionist painter and an early example of Thompson's fusion of abstract and representational elements of art. Müller is considered to be a leading proponent of east coast Figurative Expressionism; a parallel movement to Abstract Expressionism that incorporated representational or narrative themes in a style that features tenets of the latter (such as gestural brush-strokes and spontaneous mark-making). Müller attended Hans Hofmann's art school in Provincetown between 1945-50, but soon rejected Hofmann's advocacy of abstract formalism by favoring a representational mode of painting. Müller's vision was an influence to many young artists who lived and worked in Provincetown, Cape Cod, during the late 1950s (Thompson amongst them).
Müller died several months prior to Thompson's arrival in Provincetown, so the composition was entirely conjured through the artist's imagination and on spoken accounts from people who attended the funeral. The subdued palette reflects the somber mood of the ceremony, as well as the bleakness of Cape Cod during the winter. It is hard to distinguish any individuals or landscape markers because Thompson has simplified the forms of the people and objects using organic shapes. His gestural application of paint and arrangement of color and shape to create perspective is, however, indicative of Abstract Expressionism. Art historian Debra Lennard remarks that the painting "lacks the vivid palette the artist would go on to develop, but the somber cemetery scene rendered with thick brushstrokes in earnest homage to Müller affords insight into Thompson's brewing sense of figuration's expressive potential".
Oil on canvas
In this phantastical painting, a menacing black monster engages two nude women and a man in a bowler hat. It offers an early example of Thompson's use of mythology to make sweeping statements on race, identity, and the fight for social liberation. Conceptually, this painting can be interpreted as a remark on Black liberation during the Civil Rights era and the lingering threat of racially motivated violence, especially with regards to sexuality and interracial relationships. As African-American historian, Crystal N. Feimster notes, "by 1959, young radical African Americans, including Thompson, were articulating a new Black sense of freedom that linked interracial sex with radical equality and Black freedom".
The widely publicized lynching of black men by white mobs, such as Emmett Till in 1955, and Charlie Parker in 1959, were likely on Thompson's mind when he painted Black Monster. Both men were wrongfully accused of raping white women and interracial relationships were banned by law in most States (interracial marriage became legal nationwide in 1967). The fear surrounding racial violence is evoked through the haunting imagery in this painting. Thompson's own marriage was to a white woman, Carol Plenda, in 1960.
Art Critic John Yau writes, "A Black man born in Louisville, Kentucky, during segregation, Thompson's desire for artistic independence is one of his greatest gifts to future generations of artists, no matter their color, gender, or sexuality. It is a gift that cannot be separated from his opaque figurative paintings populated by featureless silhouettes of humans and animals, depicted in saturated colors and inhabiting an Arcadian landscape. This world seldom comments directly on the legacy of segregation, but never ignores it. Groups of featureless figures are rarely the same color in a Thompson painting, but they are not always hostile to each other - a vision that anticipates Nicole Eisenman's celebratory 1990s paintings of Brooklyn beer gardens".
Oil on canvas
Garden of Music
Garden of Music, considered one of Thompson's most substantial and important paintings, is an ode to his musician friends. The painting is constructed like a classical bacchanal, but its contemporary subject matter transforms a familiar Renaissance scene into a modern-day jazz festival. Featured in the top row of the painting from left to right are musicians, Ornette Coleman (saxophone), Don Cherry (trumpet), John Coltrane (saxophone), Sonny Rollins (saxophone), Ed Blackwell (seated on the drums), and Charlie Haden (with upright bass). Bob and Carol Thompson are also included in the bottom right hands side of the painting (Bob wearing his signature porkpie hat).
The festivities take place in an imaginary landscape that alludes to the mythical Garden of Eden. Demonstrating Thompson's method of combining myth with reality, the overall composition transforms a modern jazz jam session into a phantastical space that is devoid of any reference to a specific period or place. It also suggests the formative impact that jazz and these musicians had on Thompson's artistic development. Curator Andrea Miller Keller said of the work, "There is, even in this early painting, a level of complexity (of both revelry and foreboding) that becomes consistent in his work. Music is being played, but the stage is full of intrigue and mystery. Although the colors are vibrant and beautiful, it remains far from an idyllic scene. The tribute here is to those musicians whose distinction is their ability to be engaged in the moment and to interact in performance with each other in surprising and sometimes thrilling ways. Yet it is a tableau of alienated individuals".
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut
The Golden Ass
The Golden Ass takes its name from the only remaining Latin novel, The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, by the prose writer Apuleius. The influential theologian and philosopher, Saint Augustine, later referred to the novel simply as The Golden Ass. The painting plays on the main plot of the novel in which the protagonist uses magic in an attempt to transform into a bird, but is instead turned into a donkey. It also evokes Goya's Los Caprichos etchings, Capricho № 42: Tú que no puedes (Thou who cannot) (c. 1799), featuring two peasants/laborers who struggle to move while supporting the weight of donkeys on their backs.
In Thompson's chromatic rendition, the human figures are also shown struggling to lift donkeys on their backs, while birds fill the background. If the human figures resemble material and corporeal life, then the birds are an allegory of the human spirit. The Golden Ass can be read thus as a visual metaphor for the dualism between the body and the spirit. Held down by the donkeys, the humans are burdened by systemic oppression and physical toil, while the birds, who fly freely in the air, portray the ideal manifestation of spirit and the yearning to rise above contemporary issues. Art critic Jackson Arn writes, The Golden Ass "... seems raucous at first, but there's a quieter order in place - the pyramid of people, donkeys, and grinning bat-angel-birds has a strong central axis, with limbs and heads evenly dispersed to either side. The brushstrokes, no matter how rough and frantic, don't disrupt the underlying shapes, and the bright-yellow forms imply a diagonal that's counterbalanced by a second diagonal of reddish ones. One foot or hoof or pigment out of place and the whole thing would fall apart".
Oil on canvas - Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
Expulsion and Nativity
Expulsion and Nativity is a combination of Massacio's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1425) and Piero della Francesca's Nativity (1470-75). It is also a visual interpretation of blues music, which has a standardized formula reliant on repetition and improvisational deviation. The composition features the solemn scene of Adam and Eve in the process of being expelled from the Garden of Eden on the left, and the festivities surrounding the birth of Christ on the right. Adam and Eve are separated from the birth of Christ but it is also evident that the Garden of Eden and the town of Bethlehem are in fact one and the same place. While Thompson differentiates the two scenes using separate color palettes, the root of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden extends into Bethlehem's landscape.
The emotions of sorrow and joy are a counterstatement, that is, a call and response that is characteristic of the blues music model. Just as bebop (one of Thompson's favorite musical genres) took the blues and abstracted it, Thompson performed a similar rendition by combining two Italian Renaissance paintings with his own love of Black music. He incorporated the climatic elements from each painting and combined them into a new scene with contemporary musings on dualities such as joy and despair, isolation and community, and the moral dilemma regarding what is considered right and wrong in modern society.
One can reasonably infer that Thompson's painting utilizes biblical narratives as a metaphor for slavery, reconstruction, and Jim Crow segregation. Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden being an allegory for the displacement of Africans from their homelands. The nativity can be interpreted thus as life post-slavery and the descendants of slaves who, while free, still remain in limbo due to current Civil Rights issues. In his 1963 book, Blues People, meanwhile, the founder of The Black Arts Movement (in 1965), Amiri Baraka (formally Leroi Jones), had argued that blues music has a lyrical and cultural resonance for African-Americans and their ancestries that dates back to a time long before their enslavement in the Americas. Thompson had in fact painted his friend Jones/Baraka (Leroi Jones and His Family (1964)), who in turn referred to Thompson directly in his caustic "break up" poem about his ex-wife, "Babylon Revisited" (1969). Blaming his ex-wife (at least in part) for Thompson's demise through heroin addiction, he wrote: "This bitch killed a friend of mine named Bob Thompson, a black painter, a giant, once, she reduced, to a pitiful imitation faggot".
Oil on canvas
Homage to Nina Simone
Perhaps his most iconic late work (it was produced shortly before his premature death aged just twenty-eight), Thompson's painting is (as its title tells us) a tribute to his good friend, and legendary jazz musician and civil rights activist, Nina Simone. Thompson paints a vividly colored bacchanal (Bacchus being the ancient Roman god of wine and fertility that is represented here as a frivolous celebration, or even an orgy) in a manner that underlines his endeavor to create art that emulates the free-spirit of the jazz musicians he so admired. Center-frame is a blue female figure playing a guitar. She is surrounded by cavorting and reclining naked figures, arranged in triangular groups. The vivid colors of the figures and their landscape is contrasted by the pastel colors that swirl above the revelers in the sky.
On the one hand, this painting echoes something of the Fauvist style of Henri Matisse and his landscapes featuring reclining nude figures. But the composition is also a direct adaptation of Nicolas Poussin's Bacchanal with Lute-Player (c. 1630) which had enthralled Thompson on a visit to the Louvre. As the Colby College Museum of Art explains, Poussin emerged as a "tributary source of inspiration for Thompson, particularly in 1964 and 1965 [and he] is the only painter to appear in Thompson's artist's statement from the period: 'I have interpreted this composition as I see it and feel it just as Poussin might have done with the same scene - the subject being the same, but the interpretation different.' The seventeenth-century artist valorized nature and antiquity in equal measure. Both he and Thompson eschew 'pure' landscape painting and generalize their settings, often shadowing them with mortality. [...] The extreme expression of natural abundance represented in bacchanals can teeter on the edge of danger, as Thompson demonstrates".
In his assessment of the painting, the LA Times art critic Christopher Knight writes, "Thompson inserted singer Nina Simone, passionate icon of Black liberation, into the precisely ordered yet boisterous scene. Thompson's 'Homage to Nina Simone,' just more than six feet wide, is slightly larger than Poussin's painting. A willowy form brushed in a lavender hue, totally unlike the bold primary colors that describe the other revelers, Simone stands to one side and a few steps back. She assumes a cultural role as a lingering, ever-present spirit, different from all the rest. Thompson may have felt a profound kinship with her as an artist - and with Poussin, too. Nearly half his working life was spent abroad. Poussin was French, but for more than 40 years he lived and worked in Rome, which is where Thompson decided to move in November 1965. Four months later, a heroin overdose after gallbladder surgery killed him".
Oil on canvas - Minneapolis Institute of Art
Biography of Bob Thompson
Childhood and Adolescence
Robert Louis Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky and raised, with his two elder sisters, Cecile, and Phyllis, in Elizabethtown (Kentucky). His father, Cecil, established the only black-owned dry-cleaning business in the state; his mother, Bessie, was an educator working within the local community. Historian and dealer, Michael Rosenfeld states that the move from Louisville to Elizabethtown "took the family away from the urban bourgeois social network to which the family had belonged [...] and since his father discouraged his children from associating with the lower-income black children in their new community, Thompson and his sisters spent much of their childhood without close friends".
Thompson was 13 when Cecil was killed in a car accident. The teenager had grown very close to his father and the trauma of his passing set in motion a prolonged series of illnesses including depression, hearing problems, mumps, and encephalitis. At his weakest point, he slipped into a three day coma. Thompson also suffered with severe headaches (an affliction that lasted for several years) and, in the hope that a change of surroundings might help his recovery, his mother sent him to live with Cecile and her husband, a cartographer named Robert Holmes, in Louisville. He found a good friend in Holmes who encouraged Thompson to pursue his interest in drawing.
Thompson attended an all-black high school from where he graduated in 1955. The expectation was that Thompson would enter a career in medicine and he enrolled as a pre-med student at Boston University, moving to Cambridge where he lodged with his other sister, Phyllis, and her family. After just one year his interest in medicine had waned, however, and Thompson left Boston, transferring, with Holmes's encouragement, onto the art program at the University of Louisville.
Early Training and Work
At Louisville, Thompson studied painting under Mary Spencer Nay. She was a modernist painter and illustrator who spent her summer breaks working in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a well-established community for avant-garde artists during the early 1950s. Nay suggested that Thompson join her at the Seong May Art School in Provincetown during the summer of 1958. While there, Thompson met lifelong friends and collaborators, Red Grooms, Jay Milder, Emilio Cruz, Gandy Brodie, and Christopher Lane. All were working in a mode of painting derived from Abstract Expressionism, but with figurative elements and representational motifs influenced by mythology, Jungian psychoanalysis, and contemporary culture. This group of artists, as Peter Schjeldahl (cited by Rosenfeld), observes, "embraced a peculiar vision of art history ... Its matter and manner announced the artists as a community of untrammeled, funky seers who all but breathed paint". For his part, Thompson explored the fashionable style of totemic abstraction (a style that took inspiration from the indigenous cultures of the United States, and from which painters, such as Robert Motherwell, referenced cultural elements such as ritual dance and totem carvings) and developed his extraordinary skill in academic drawing.
The Provincetown artists also took inspiration from Jan Müller, a painter of German origin, who studied with the hugely influencial modernist teacher, Hans Hofmann. Indeed, Thompson's early palette reflected a close affinity with Müller's dark earthy tones and gestural figurations. Thompson underwent another aesthetic breakthrough in between his time at Provincetown and his final semester at the University of Louisville when he developed something of a fixation on European painting between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith, writes, "From Giotto to Manet, he appropriated, subverted and transformed their masterpieces by the simple act of recasting their figures and sometimes their landscapes into saturated colors that still are joltingly contemporary - and function in ways that can feel more fully narrative, spatial, psychological, political and retinal than colors generally do". Indeed, Thompson had by now found his own style which overlapped the past and present to create visual metaphors to reflect personal and collective experiences relating to his racial identify, spirituality, and social justice.
In 1959, Thompson moved to a loft in downtown New York City - Rosenfeld writes, "Quickly embracing the vibrant bohemian culture of the downtown avant-garde scene, Thompson met and befriended Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) as well as other leading artists and writers of the Beat generation. An inveterate jazz lover, Thompson was a regular at the Five Spot Café, where legendary talents like Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Charlie Haden often played. He also participated in a few early Happenings organized by Allan Kaprow and Red Grooms, filling out their roster of painter-performers, which also included Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jim Dine". Thompson had also taken to heart the advice of Dody Müller (the widow of Jan Müller) - "Don't ever look for your solutions from contemporaries - look at Old Masters" - and reworked compositions of European Masters such as Piero della Francesca, Nicolas Poussin, Francisco de Goya, and Jacopo Tintoretto into what Rosenfeld calls "simplified, abstracted forms rendered in palettes alternately hot and violent or cool and dark".
Thompson's mature paintings express the cadence and immediacy of jazz music. He superseded the organic hues and dark tones within his early canvases with a Fauvist-like palette and cut-out, silhouette-style forms which became his preferred visual devices. Thompson began exhibiting these works in solo and group shows. His first solo exhibition was at Delancey Street Museum, an artspace inside artist Red Grooms's loft on the Lower East Side. That show was followed by an exhibition with Jay Milder at the Zabriskie Gallery on the Upper East Side. With the same improvisational spontaneity that Coleman et al performed avant-garde music, Thompson painted imagery that broke free from preconceived conventions in visual art. The result was a blend of idyllic scenes, raucous bacchanals, and dystopian nightmares. In Thompson's words, "I paint many paintings that tell me slowly that I have something inside of me that is just bursting, twisting, sticking, spilling over to get out. Out into souls and mouths and eyes that have never seen before. The Monsters are present now on my canvas as in my dreams".
Later Years and Death
In 1960, Thompson married Carol Plenda, a white clothing designer from Ohio who he first met in Provincetown. The Met Museum writes, "by 1960 he had established an abiding interest in Renaissance and Baroque artists, whose themes he appropriated and transformed with great relish throughout his career, self-consciously situating himself within the very canon from which he, as a Black artist, had been excluded. (Thompson referred to his adaptations of European art as "variations" in a rare 1965 interview.) Since he would not travel to Europe until March 1961, Thompson availed himself instead of The Met's substantial collection of Old Master prints, drawings, and paintings in 1959 and 1960".
In 1961, Thompson received a grant from the Walter Gutman Foundation, which enabled him to live and work in Europe. The Thompsons then moved to Paris. The following year, Thompson was awarded a John Hay Whitney grant, allowing him to extend his European stay. In 1963, the couple moved to Ibiza. Thompson fervently sketched the local Mediterranean landscapes and scenery, which would become source material for backgrounds in several paintings from the period. Rosenfeld writes, "The Thompsons soon became known for their hospitality, welcoming friends and strangers into their home, feeding them, and hosting all manner of parties and happenings".
Upon his return to the US, Thompson's star was entering its ascendency. As Rosenfeld explains, "Bob and Carol Thompson returned to New York in 1963, renting an apartment on the Lower East Side, not far from the studio of friend and fellow artist Lester Johnson, who helped Thompson get a one-man show at Martha Jackson's gallery that same year. The show received favorable reviews and propelled the artist's career to a new level of success. [...] On the recommendation of Lester Johnson, Thompson was included in Yale University's influential Seven Young Painters exhibition [in 1964]. He had a second solo exhibition with Martha Jackson in 1965, which brought an unprecedented number of viewers to the gallery".
In 1966, Thompson traveled to Rome with the intent of furthering his studies of the Renaissance Masters. Thompson was not in good health, however, and underwent emergency gallbladder surgery soon after his arrival in the city. Although the surgery was successful, Thompson ignored his doctors' advice to take time to rest and fully recuperate and threw himself full-tilt into his art. His fragile health, aggravated by drug addiction and the lingering effects of his childhood illnesses, duly took their toll and Thompson died in Rome a month before his 29th birthday.
In a short, but prolific career, Thompson had produced over 1,000 works on paper and canvas. The Minneapolis Institute of Art writes, "Thompson [was] a kind of genre unto himself: the black artist who deconstructed old white art for a hipper, groovier time. Like Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s, his talents broke barriers even as they enabled his vices. The charms of the art world - money, fame, drugs - were held out to him, and he turned none of it away. He loved to party. He had a heroin addiction. He lived fast, and died fast".
The Legacy of Bob Thompson
Bob Thompson's reputation has grown significantly in recent years as figurative art and the work of Black American artists have been subject to renewed critical focus and exposure. Lauded by peers such as Jay Milder, Lester Johnson, and Red Grooms, Thompson has also been cited as a significant influence on contemporary painters including, Peter Doig, Kyle Staver, Henry Taylor, and Naudline Pierre. The Conceptual artist Rashid Johnson states that, "As we continue to redefine how canonical systems inform us and re-establish the parameters for how we identify important projects, [Thompson is] going to continue to play a more substantive role. The leash is getting shorter for folks to be unfamiliar". And although he died just a year after its inception in 1965 (and while living on a different continent), Thompson has been cited as a primary influence on New York's Black Arts Movement, through his close friendship and creative bond with the movement's founder, the poet, dramatist, and essayist, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones).
The New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith, writes, "Thompson's legacy is complex. His action-packed scenes and irregular shapes can make color seem more intense and actively retinal than in most abstract painting. Along with artists like William H. Johnson, Stuart Davis, Nellie Mae Rowe and Robert Colescott, his work set a precedent for many younger representational painters using high-keyed palettes. Thompson emphatically opened the past as a living resource while claiming one of the pinnacles of white, male Western culture for future use by others. The borrowed compositions were for him ready-mades - armatures. Like his impatient, unfussy surfaces, they saved him time which he refused ever to waste, down to the last minute".