By all accounts, Bob Thompson was an intelligent, extremely sensitive and aware middle-class teenager growing up in Louisville, Ky., in the mid-’50s. His mother was a schoolteacher. His father, a proud entrepreneur, over the years had a restaurant (a "chicken shack"), a couple of dry cleaners and a dry cleaning plant and, with his wife, even ran a country club for a while. Bob had two older sisters.
Tragically Thompson’s father died in 1950 when his delivery vehicle was forced off the road and overturned. Then, Thompson’s sister Phyllis said, "his whole world fell apart." After graduating from high school in 1955, Thompson left Louisville – perhaps, it is suggested, to get away from a progressively domineering mother – for Cambridge, Mass., to stay with Phyllis and her husband. He entered Boston University with the intention of pursuing a premed curriculum, but soon was back home studying art, first at the Art Center Association and then at the University of Louisville.
Somehow by 1961 Thompson became a rising star in the Lower East Side beat culture of Manhattan’s art world and subsequently lived with his wife, Carol Plenda (a Detroit girl), in Paris, where, in a bohemian studio, he studied the masters and painting. His art connections were already considerable; he’d spent a couple of summers in Provincetown where he hung out with a group of up-andcoming artists with pedigree, as well as with established European avant-gardists and artists from such seminal places as Black Mountain College.
But how to account for the meteoric rise of Thompson’s artistic fame? He was a middle-class black from largely segregated Louisville, yet there is nothing in his work that reveals these biographical details. None of the conventions of Harlem Renaissance realism in the portrayal of black culture are apparent. There are no signs of the black consciousness movement that was developing among the black artists around Thompson. One of the masterminds of that movement, Leroi Jones-Amiri Baraka, was even a friend and Thompson painted his portrait on a few occasions. Instead, to assess the brilliant and engaging hybrid complexity of Thompson’s paintings we need only look at what they consist of.
Large, looming, interlocking, organic and geometric painted shapes composed in a gorgeous palette of moody, shadowy earth tones and brilliant primary colors render Thompson’s epic narratives. They are ambitious tales with ancient animals, naked women, monsters and a complicated shifting landscape of simple trees and hillsides under a truncated patch of dramatic sky (see "Black Monster," 1959). These compositions are not simple. They spin outwardly toward abstraction. They are complex and invite a long, long look.
Find a dark silhouetted figure lurking in a turned-down, broad-brimmed hat (the artist himself), a brightly colored, magnificently drawn horse, or people the scene with naked musicians and various epic monsters and this could be a rudimentary description of many of Thompson’s works. These are ambitious paintings that want to tell us something important.
Thompson began to paint figuratively at a time when the whole art world was agog over Abstract Expressionism. It’s likely that when he was hanging out at the Five Spot, a famed New York jazz club, he saw Abstract Expressionist artists there such as Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell listening to the same music he was listening to. But after 1960, unlike the rest of the New York art scene that was looking to articulate an inherently American vision, Thompson appropriated thematic and compositional conventions of the masters that he had studied in Europe.
While "Blue Madonna" (1961, pictured) is not a completely typical composition because of the vertical fragmentation created by the trees, one nevertheless sees all of Thompson’s elements at work in it. Likely an appropriation of traditional motifs seen in the Louvre, the Madonna and Child figures composed of diaphanous white are set off to the right of the canvas. They are shaped as a right-triangle and support the interlocking colored shapes of a bowed supplicant and an assortment of other earth-toned, silhouetted figures, a horse (recalling ancient and thus primal energy) and the undulating shapes of tree bark.
The painting’s flatness – the lack of illusion of space – is neither some naive feature nor an homage to primitivism, but reveals the influence of such painters as Milton Avery and Matisse, and is rather a sophisticated elevational look at the world, showing the musicality of flowing, interlocking forms.
Thompson used the compositional strategies of the jazz players he listened to regularly. One can especially recognize a tune like "Free" by Ornette Coleman, Thompson’s close friend, in the vibratory interplay of this work, the primal connection in which color and shape are connected to rhythm. Yet the overall composition rests on a conventional use of space inherited from Europe, a movement in the landscape from background to foreground that holds the painting together.
Nevertheless in "Blue Madonna," as in virtually all of Thompson’s work, there are suggestions of painful personal as well as archetypal dramas. Nature and passion, landscape and beast, figure in allegories where man and woman play out primal actions. The jazz compositions that seem to underlie these pieces exist in an amazing hybrid mix with the confident spatial arrangements of a Poussin, a Piero della Franscesca or a Masaccio.
In 1966 at the age of 29, Bob Thompson died of a drug overdose in Rome. He had recently closed a successful exhibition of his work at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. An artist within whom profound historical and personal dynamics interacted, he is only now beginning to be understood within the narrative of American art history.E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org