Bob Thompson’s exhibition explores his brilliant works from a curtailed career
“It was all totally my imagination from a far away place.” – Bob Thompson
A major traveling exhibition offers a rich reflection on a visionary African-American painter. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Bob Thompson (1937-1966) received critical acclaim in the late 1950s for his paintings of figurative complexity and chromatic intensity. Bob Thompson: This house is mine borrows its name from a tiny but exquisite painting created by the artist in 1960. With this title, Thompson declared his ambition to synthesize a new visual language from elements of historic European painting.
Bob Thompson: This house is mine is organized by the Colby College Art Museum in Waterville, Maine, and will travel after his Colby debut (on view now through Jan. 9, 2022) to: Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, Chicago, February 10-May 15, 2022; Top art museum, Atlanta, June 18-September 11, 2022; Hammer Museum at UCLA , Los Angeles, October 9, 2022 – January 8, 2023.
The first museum exhibition dedicated to the artist for more than twenty years, This house is mine traces Thompson’s brief but prolific transatlantic career, examining his formal inventiveness and engagement with the universal themes of community, witness, struggle and justice. In just eight years, he tackled the exclusive Western canon, developing a lexicon of enigmatic forms that he incorporated into his work. Human and animal figures, often silhouetted and relatively without features, populate mysterious vignettes set in wooded landscapes or haunt theatrically compressed spaces. Thompson reconfigures well-known compositions by European artists such as Piero della Francesca and Francisco de Goya through brilliant acts of formal distortion and elision, recasting these scenes in sumptuous color. Occasionally, familiar characters appear: jazz greats Nina Simone and Ornette Coleman, and writers LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Allen Ginsberg.
Bringing together paintings and works on paper from over fifty public and private collections across the United States, This house is mine centers Bob Thompson’s work in expansive historical narratives of art and ongoing dialogues on the politics of representation, tracing his enduring influence. The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalog of academics, artists and poets, published in association with Yale University Press.
Robert Louis (Bob) Thompson briefly studied medicine at Boston University before enrolling in the studio program at the University of Louisville, which broke up in 1951. As an art student, Thompson explored the languages of totemic abstraction then in vogue and developed an extraordinary skill. in academic drawing. He spent the summer of 1958 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he continued his training at the Seong Moy School of Painting and Graphic Arts and formed precious friendships. Thompson also encountered the work of the recently deceased German emigrant artist Jan Müller (1922-1958), whose figurative style steered him towards new expressive possibilities.
Thompson quickly settled in New York City, where he joined fellow artists Allan Kaprow and Red Grooms in some of their first multimedia performance events called “Happenings”. A jazz enthusiast, Thompson frequented downtown clubs such as the Slugs’ Saloon and the Five Spot Café, where legendary artists like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Charlie Haden performed. These musicians materialize in many of Thompson’s paintings and drawings, including Ornette (Birmingham Museum of Art, 1960-1961) and Music garden (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 1960). This pivotal period was marked by Thompson’s first solo exhibition in New York City, and over the following years his work entered some of the most important collections of modern art in the United States.
In 1961, Thompson and his wife, Carol, made their first trip to Europe together, spending time in London and Paris and eventually settling in Ibiza. Thompson was able to fully immerse himself in the traditions that formed the core of his practice. During his stay in Spain, he deepened his study of Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), and paintings such as Untitled (Colby College Museum of Art, 1962) demonstrates his intoxicating dialogue with Los Caprichos, the series of biting and satirical prints by the Spanish artist. On a second trip to Europe, the couple moved to Rome, where Thompson tragically died on May 30, 1966 from gallbladder surgery.
Memorial exhibitions at the New School for Social Research (1969) and the Speed Art Museum (1971) celebrated his life and career. In 1998, Thelma Golden and Judith Wilson organized a fundamental science retrospective of her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. More recently, Thompson’s paintings have featured in group exhibitions such as Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties; The Color Line: African-American artists and segregation; and The Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. Bob Thompson’s estate is represented by the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.