Bob Thompson didn’t want to be stuck.
He was a singular and secret painter who kept a snare drum and conga in his studio and was a friend of the great jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. He wanted to keep improvising, keep riffing – on the old masters, on his dreams, on the mysterious operations of form and color. He wanted to go further and further, further and further away from words and their definitions.
“I can’t find a place or category to put my paintings or a name to call them,” he said in a statement by the artist published in the Louisville Gazette in 1959. The following year, a perceptive critic detected “a grave and private emergency” in his work. And in 1965, Thompson said he was “trying to show what’s going on, what’s going on … my way.”
Thompson died in 1966. He had become addicted to heroin and overdosed shortly after gallbladder surgery. He was 28 years old. Although his career was short (only eight years), Thompson was prolific, creating over 1,000 paintings. His work is now the subject of “Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine”, a captivating exhibition at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, through January 9. The first Thompson retrospective in 20 years, she will travel early next year. years in Chicago, before moving to Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Thompson, who was African American, was born and raised in Kentucky. Her father died in a car accident at the age of 13. Five years later, he enrolled as a pre-med student at Boston University. He dropped out, battling depression, and returned to the recently broken-up University of Louisville to study painting.
In 1958, Thompson moved to the Lower East Side of New York City, befriending poets, musicians and other artists. He spent that summer – a formative summer – in Provincetown, Massachusetts, then an artists’ colony on Cape Cod. Abstraction was all the rage, but Thompson was eager to fight against orthodoxy. He meets the work of Jan Müller (1922-1958), a figurative painter of charged narrative scenes who died recently. Müller’s style – naive narrative scenes with multiple characters and vivid colors – resonated deeply.
In 1960, Thompson married Carol Plenda, a white woman. The couple traveled to Europe twice, first in 1961 (when they settled for two years in Ibiza, Spain) and then in 1965, when they moved to Rome. This is where the artist died.
I start with this biographical sketch – snaking around the edge of things – because that’s what Thompson did in his paintings. His characters are almost all silhouettes. They float, stand or sit – sometimes pushing wings, mouths, eyes or extravagant headgear – in sumptuously colored landscapes that have the irrational and metamorphic quality of dreams.
He was such a sincere and sensual seeker! I felt like I knew Thompson’s love for the Old Masters, but I was surprised to see how deeply, directly, and fruitfully his work was inspired by them. The Colby exhibition includes loose but easily recognizable improvisations on paintings by Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Titian, Tintoretto and Poussin, as well as a long series of riffed paintings on “Los Caprichos”, a famous suite of prints by Goya. .
Goya’s dark visions – his sardonic, scathing, and urgently exploratory tone – are at the root of so many of Thompson’s final works, with their dark magic, bat wings, and arcane allegory. But the works are also imbued with the atmosphere of tenderness and religiosity of Renaissance Italians and Poussin. Everything is transposed in a modern way, knowingly awkward and sometimes coagulated, but at the same time richly colored and full of emotion. Thompson’s misshapen figures rhyme and merge with the background in a way strongly inspired by Gauguin, as well as the late Cézanne and the early Matisse.
What was Thompson dreaming of? We would like to be able to say – specify the real content of his dream work. It is often disturbing, both erotic and violent. But these are paintings of adults, and Thompson was not interested in being explained. Unfortunately, the organizers smothered his mysterious and silent paintings with far too much text. One painting is dwarf and almost surrounded by a long quote in an oversized font. Many others are hung on the walls painted in garish and ill-chosen colors. Much of the text is usefully informative, but it is tinged with the kind of academic identity politics that Thompson surely would have shied away from.
Reviewing a gallery exhibition in 1962, an Art News reviewer said that Thompson had introduced “a private view” or “fantasy” into “a quick instinctive transaction with form and color.” Fast and instinctive is right: the works have the feeling of syncopated drum rhythms, or reflex psychological impulses that switch between what the poet and critic Randall Jarrell has called “half the expression of a wish and half of defense against wish ”.
Some feature monsters, lynchings and strange rituals; others show scenes of justice and punishment – although the anarchic atmosphere suggests false justice. Lynchings, crucifixions, and executions are an important part of Thompson’s repertoire, as are the menacing black monsters. In works such as “The Hanging”, “The Judgment” and “The Execution” it is clear that he struggles – in a vein of deep concern – with the legacy of terror in the southern United States. where he grew up, and where the lynchings were linked to a pervasive idea – a sort of mass hysteria – of the sexual threat allegedly posed by black boys and men.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, sexuality was for many oppressed people an expression of political liberation. Thompson was in love with Plenda, but such interracial relationships remained strained, so you can imagine why images of black monsters and lynchings were part of her job. But even such an intense and volatile subject is presented with the characteristic Thompson ambivalence. He was an artist in love with his own opacity.
Jazz – with its complicated rhythms, surprising harmonies, and shifting melodies – had a huge influence on Thompson’s creative process. A major painting here, “Garden of Music,” belonging to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, is squarely in the modernist Arcadian tradition of “The Large Bathers” by Cezanne, “Music” by Matisse and “Where Do We Come From? Who are we? Where are we going? ”But instead of anonymous archetypes, Thompson’s painting features identifiable jazz musicians he knew from the Slugs Saloon and the Five Spot café in New York: Coleman, John Coltrane, Don Cherry, Sonny Rollins , Ed Blackwell and Charlie Haden A nearby painting, “Homage to Nina Simone” (the legendary singer and civil rights activist was yet another friend), is a spectacular amalgamation of Poussin and Matisse.
The elusiveness, the refusal to settle in Coltrane’s melodies has an equivalent in Thompson’s work. Anytime you think her painting might revert to an original key or settle into a clear reading, she’s moving and floating on something more interesting.
Is there an analogy to be made with identity politics? Thompson was African American and his work touched powerfully on themes relating to the black experience. But he was a painter, not a polemicist, and his choice of this medium had everything to do with spiritual and sensual uneasiness, with the need to say: “You don’t know me. You can’t put me in your neat pre-made box. You can’t corner me.