Bob Thompson’s Provocative Challenge to Euro-American Art History

WATERVILLE, Maine – For black artists of the mid-20th century, art history was a space of exclusion controlled by powerful white critics, gallery owners and institutions. Painters and collagists like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, who appropriated elements of the Western canon, were assessed largely on the basis of their adherence to it. In the case of the late American artist Bob Thompson, his appropriations of the Old Masters diverged from the rise of Abstract Expressionism, which has since underestimated his majestic paintings. When white artists colored outside the lines, Thompson drew his own lines, claiming his right to modern art.

Thompson painted vivid allegories of race relations in the United States, the dense brushstrokes of his colorful body figures translating the story into words. He died of a heroin overdose in 1966, the year the Black Panthers were formed, but his art survives to challenge an industry that still profits from the suffering of blacks. His first retrospective in two decades, This house is mine at the Colby College Museum of Art, is a triumph in terms of scale and curation, and the abundance of provocative imagery poses new questions regarding its legacy.

In 28 years of life, Thompson created more than 1,000 paintings, including hundreds of expressive reinterpretations of Renaissance and early modern artwork. These variations, like those of jazz music, allowed the artist to riff on familiar favorites, and his preferred standards were Poussin, Tintoretto, Manet and Goya. Approaching renowned white artists from the fringes allowed Thompson to unravel Euro-American tensions with black, and the 85 works on display here depict the terror and splendor of public space, the persecution of black sexuality and the fine line between assimilation and fugitivity.

Bob Thompson, “The Execution” (1961), oil on linen canvas, 7 x 10 ½ inches. Private collection, New York (Courtesy of Ellen Phelan and Joel Shapiro. Photo by Jerry L. Thompson / Art Resource, NY)

While Thompson’s work is often categorized as expressionist, his use of hallucinatory imagery and symbolism leans toward surrealism. His lifelong friend Amiri Baraka, who appears in a portrait as LeRoi Jones, coined the term “Afro-surrealist” eight years after Thompson’s death, but the painter’s experiments with the myth and the parable go further. beyond simple expressionism, identifying contemporary black trauma in Western canon. “The Execution” (1961) takes its composition from the “Beheading of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian” by Fra Angelico (1438-40) – which depicts the beheading of doctors who refused to charge patients – replacing white Christians with black martyrs. A white headband replaces a noose, minimizing the idea that justice is blind.

Rather than providing straightforward answers, Thompson reveled in the ambiguity, introducing colorful nude figures into storylines that deny resolution. Three black men appear seated next to three white women in “The Judgment” (1963), but it is still unclear who is judging whom. Huge birds and amorphous beasts invade the pictorial plane – recurring motifs for the artist – obscuring racial and sexual tension. For Thompson, who grew up in Kentucky and married a white woman, interracial sex collided with southern white hegemony, transforming black men. and white women in disgrace.

Bob Thompson, “Black Monster” (1959), oil on canvas, 56 x 67 inches (© Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York)

The stereotypical monstrosity of black male sexuality served as propaganda that fueled lynching, imprisonment, and deprivation of economic rights. In “Black Monster” (1959), Thompson paints a jet-black creature tearing through a vertical frame two white women and a dark-skinned figure apparently engaged in a threesome. It is a poignant and evocative image, ahead of its time but timely in its involvement. A nearby sign says that a 23-year-old Mississippi man, Mack Charles Parker, was lynched by a white mob over rape allegations in 1959, making this colorful scene both fierce and introspective.

“People love coming to my studio because I have all of these places to go,” said Thompson, referring not only to the revolving door of artists who visited him in Greenwich Village, but the outer limits of the black imaginary. Indeed, his art takes viewers not only to Europe and Africa, where some of these works have been painted, but also to distant spaces of his subconscious. The devotional “Garden of Music” (1960) depicts a magnificent outdoor concert given by John Coltrane, Don Cherry, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, among other jazz musicians. Next to this piece, his individual tribute to Coleman shows a kaleidoscopic amalgamation of bodies, trees and faces swirling around a rectangular frame. Thompson channels the spirit of free jazz into the composition of a Renaissance fresco, resulting in an unlikely harmony.

Bob Thompson, “North African Dream” (1963), oil on canvas, 62 ¾ x 86 ¾ inches. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. The Martha Jackson Memorial Collection: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David K. Anderson, 1980 (Photo by Lee Stalsworth. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

Several appropriations of Francisco de Goya’s prints indicate a shared renegade spirit that Thompson applied through the lines of color, and the vignettes from the Colby Museum’s extensive collection of Goya’s works. Los Caprichos prints (1797-98) appear nearby for comparison. Thompson adapted “Tribute to an American Indian” (1963) from “Dream. Du lie et de inconstance ”(1797), an unpublished print which ruminates on deception using two-sided subjects. Thompson depicts a two-headed Aboriginal man with a brightly colored headdress instead of butterfly wings, adapting these colors in the foreground to allude to European appropriation of ancestral lands. Just as Goya inserted himself on the left, Thompson painted himself in the same position, signaling solidarity between the colonized subjects.

During Thompson’s lifetime, critics lacked the language to contextualize his work outside the mainstream of modernism. Today, as black artists like Kehinde Wiley and Boots Riley appropriate white traditions to raise bizarre contradictions in America, Thompson’s paintings are reminiscent of D. Scot Miller’s words: “Afro-surrealists create sensual gods to hunt down beautiful collapsed icons. Thompson has unearthed the cult of art history, revealing an invisible world waiting to be discovered, but its magnificent and provocative work still escapes easy definition. Nonetheless, Thompson deserves this reassessment, if not as a catalyst of any contemporary genre, then as a beloved ancestor.

Bob Thompson, “Garden of Music” (1960), oil on canvas, 79 1/2 × 143 inches. Wadsworth Atheneum Art Museum, Hartford, Connecticut. Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection fonds (© Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York. Photo: Allen Phillips / Wadsworth Atheneum)
Bob Thompson, “Homage to an American Indian“(1963), oil on canvas, 63 1/8 × 87 3/4 inches (© Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York)

Bob Thompson: This house is mine continues at the Colby College Museum of Art (5600 Mayflower Drive, Waterville, Maine) until January 9, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Diana Tuite.

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Christopher S. Washington