The Great Bob Thompson, in Two Parts

Few painters have used color as vigorously or variegatedly as Bob Thompson. Thompson was an outstanding and ambitious American artist who was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1937, and died in Rome in 1966, shortly before his 29th birthday, in Rome. His health, substance abuse, and seemingly unforgiving work ethic. However, Thompson never doubted his own talents and had a voracious appetite for various forms of culture. He interacted with New York beat poets and free jazz musicians, as well as a wide range of other artists. In his only eight years of life, he left behind hundreds of paintings, drawings and oil paintings. Its vast numbers are still not well known.

Thompson’s art was fed above all by the canons of European painting. From Giotto to Manet, he appropriated, subverted, and transformed their masterpieces through the simple act of recasting figures and sometimes landscapes in saturated colors that are still strikingly modern. I was. And it works in a way that feels more fully narrative, spatial, psychological and political. And it’s more retinal than color is generally.

Some works are fairly faithful to the original in composition. Elsewhere, Thompson took all sorts of liberties. Frequent additions include large silhouettes of giant birds that physically or mentally protect, threaten or attack. Sometimes the human figure grabs the bird’s legs and holds it up high like a trophy or weapon.

Since 1998, there have been two great opportunities to study Thompson’s greatness. That year, Thelma Golden, now director and chief curator of his museum at Harlem Studios, and Judith Wilson, a leading Thompson researcher, curated a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. , Unfortunately, I did not make the trip. In 2021, Diana Tutt curated her retrospective at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, touring Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles, but omitting New York. For some reason, no museum in New York saw the Colby exhibition as an opportunity to measure the increasingly diverse art world, where people of color and women artists are increasingly prominent. It appeared in the nearly quarter-century gap between the two shows.

New York won quite the consolation prize this spring. A total of 30 Thompson paintings from 1959 to 1966, exhibited by two galleries with markedly different house styles and financial structures, form their own interesting subtexts of Old School and New School.

The more engaging shows are, of course, courtesy of the giant galleries. The location is 52 Walker, a space in Tribeca set up in 2021 by David Zwerner’s global franchise to focus on black artists and directed by dealer Ebony L. Haynes. Intended to function more as a museum, an alternative space than a sales floor, his 52 Walker was a smart move. Four of his 14 paintings are in museum collections, the rest are in private collections and not for sale.

52 Walker Show, “Bob Thompson: So let us all be citizens.” Museum-like solemn art is displayed in a spacious space with soothing dark blue walls that offset Thompson’s aggressive palette.

Most of the paintings are excellent or close to it. His outstanding work includes two of his early works, his 1960 dark atmospheric expressionist paintings “Ouagadou” and “Gumball” influenced by Gauguin. They also show that Thompson’s work from 1958 to December 1960, when he made his first and longest trip to Europe, deserves its own exhibition. Also his 1960 production, Bacchanale, with its light brushed surfaces and turbulent turmoil of figures, reflects the speed of Thompson’s development at this time.

Two 1964 paintings from the Whitney Museum of American Art are awe-inspiring. “Allegory” is captivating as its passengers move like a frieze in a majestic wagon watched over by a big blue bird. Behind it, the vast expanses of land, water, islands and sky are breathtaking. All but the Abstract Expressionist style clouds reflect the setting of Renaissance painting. In “Bacchus’ Triumph,” a raucous band of fiery colored celebrities (people, animals, birds) are thrust forward, offset by green. Silhouettes of two elephants in deep purplish blue and a giraffe in bright orange enrich the palette and remind us of Bacchus’ stopover in India. A small study nearly identical to this Thompson painting in the Hirshhorn Museum is entitled Bacchus’ Triumph of India (after Poussin).

It’s more a coincidence than a collaboration, “Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy” It can be seen at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Chelsea. Based in one location, this long-established facility has represented Thompson’s estate since 1996 and has been in his possession since 2019, where he has performed six solo productions of the artist’s work. Rosenfeld’s show is more intimate thanks to plenty of energetic paintings and other material, but it’s also more uneven in the way it reveals.

In some works, the situation turns ominous, such as 1963’s Untitled (Proof of the Cross), whose theme is Piero della Francesca. Some of the kneeling figures look like aliens, but more disturbing are his three giant birds looming over the scene and his one peering out from the right.

Sometimes you can imagine an artist looking at a painting and saying, “Okay.” That’s enough. to the next. “In The Circus (1963), two large birds (green and blue) hold down two muscular male silhouettes (red and yellow). Is this a circus act? A tag team wrestler Preparing for a match, two musicians possessed by their inner demons—when these figures are in place, Thompson has a casual, albeit uncommon air in his work. I quickly fill in the background: the green, black and pink circles and dots reminded me of Vilardian wallpapers, later I realized they were likely abbreviations for many listeners. rice field.

Gauguin comes to mind here as well. Another glossy surface work from 1960, the yellow lower body in the center of the overturned Burial, may belong to Gauguin’s Yellow Christ, although Christ has been replaced by a woman. It looks like there is “Untitled (Oh Lawd!)” (1963) has a real spin on space, a sort of inverted pieta. The mother figure here is a red Christ with a clipped arm resembling a cross, who appears to hold a yellow woman on her lap.

Thompson’s legacy is complex. His action-packed scenes and irregular shapes make color appear more intense, lively and retina-like than most abstract paintings. Along with artists such as William H. Johnson, Stuart Davis, Nellie Mae Lowe, and Robert Colscott, his work set a precedent for many young figurative painters using high-key palettes. Thompson emphasized the past as a living resource, claiming one of the pinnacles of white male Western culture for others to use in the future. His borrowed work was for him a ready-made product, an armature. As much as his impatient, no-frills face, they saved time he refused to waste until the last moment.

Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy

Until July 7, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 110 11th Avenue 212-247-.0082. Michael Rosenfeldart.com.

Bob Thompson: So let us all be citizens
Until July 8, 52 Walker Street, (212) 727-1961. 52Walker.com.

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