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Bob Thompson (1937–1966), an artist from Louisville, Kentucky, who participated in the Provincetown and New York art worlds of the late 1950s before embarking on extensive periods spent in London, Paris, Ibiza, and Rome, lived a brief but prolific life as a painter. He died in 1966 at the age of twenty-nine. Thompson’s work, with its distinctive motifs (a hatted man, mysterious birds, figures set in lush and ambiguous chromatic landscapes, and transformed quotations of art historical paintings), flowered in the eight years This House Is Mine covers, from 1958 until 1966. The show takes its title from a small painting in the collection of the Colby College Museum of Art, which is the first of four cross-country venues showcasing the exhibition. The painting This House Is Mine (1960) sets two figures in a landscape that is broken into frame-like sections by trees. At center, a man’s silhouetted form stands stiffly on a dark road beside a sketchy gray dog while a red barn shimmers in the distance. In the right foreground, a seated nude woman tenderly holds a horse’s chin. The exhibition, like its eponymous painting, revels in the ambiguity and plenum of Thompson’s work in its thrill and wit and critique, in its communities, and in its contemporary resonance. This House Is Mine sears Thompson’s contribution into the historical record from which it should never have been displaced.
The exhibition gathers the artist’s work in an expansive show that, in its canvases, texts, and impressive catalog, situates Thompson as a major artist in his own time and in ours. The catalog’s scholarly weight (contributors include artists Henry Taylor, Alex Katz, and Rashid Johnson, and scholars Adrienne L. Childs, Lowery Stokes Sims, and Jacqueline Francis)—as well as its many quotations from the artists of Thompson’s era with whom his life and work were closely intertwined—reinforce his presence and relevance as firmly as his paintings do. The exhibition, installed on two floors in the Colby College Museum of Art, includes paintings gathered from over fifty collections, many larger than six feet on a side, as well as works on paper, archival documentation from the artist’s life, a film of the artist working in his studio, and preparatory and related efforts that speak to Thompson’s process and sources.
Loans from major museums including the Hirshhorn Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, from academic museums including Colby itself, and from private collections demonstrate that Thompson’s work is widely enshrined in art’s institutions. This, in itself, suggests Thompson’s assertive presence during his short life. Yet Thompson has not had a major exhibition in two decades; the last was curated by Judith Wilson-Pates and Thelma Golden for the Whitney in 1998. In its scope, catalog, and loans, This House Is Mine demonstrates that while Thompson’s absence from view might make him seem to have just arrived, he was always already here.
The pyrrhic gift of Thompson’s institutional neglect is that the works are in magnificent condition, and the show leverages his gemlike palette of primary and secondary colors and his distinctive style to emphasize his particularity and painterly virtuosity. As Thompson himself explained (and perhaps prognosticated) in a quote that became the epigraph for curator Diana Tuite’s essay in the catalog, “I cannot find a place nor a category in which to put my paintings, nor a name to call them, provoked by a feeling of disdain for the gallery-going public’s notion of what a painting should be” (31). Thompson enrolled in the University of Louisville’s Hite Art Institute in 1957, then in the summer of 1958 befriended artists in Provincetown including Mimi Gross and Red Grooms. Members of this community were also habitués of Greenwich Village, where Thompson settled soon thereafter. By 1961, Thompson and his new wife, Carol Plenda, were living between Europe and the United States, with Thompson selling his work through galleries in New York, Chicago, and Detroit. By June 1966, Thompson would be dead of complications from gall bladder and appendix surgery. In his life, and now long after his death, Thompson has remained an enigmatic insider, a painter forged in Provincetown and New York in the camaraderie of the New York School, but he was also an expatriate, a traveler and adventurer who lived fast and achieved transatlantic success, devouring the life and history of art with world-hungry, incandescent ambition and transforming it into a distinctive artistic vision.
Tuite pored over archival materials at the Archives of American Art and the Richard Gray Gallery and combed the existing literature in order to elucidate the art historical allusions that frequently served as Thompson’s sources. Indeed, Thompson often makes clear his paintings’ art historical roots in Goya or Poussin, but he also transforms his quotations into new and ambiguous paintings more haunted by narrative than illustrative of it. In a catalog essay, Tuite proposes the exhibition and painting title as Thompson’s “right to an imaginary space of belonging, one that may be conditionally open or available to others but is ultimately private” (45), as a foil to the assumed universality of modernism with (via a quote by Kerry James Marshall) its assumed whiteness. In framing Thompson’s unique transformation of art history into private narrative, Tuite deftly addresses both the confidence and ambiguity of Thompson’s work, which vibrates on the boundary of declaration and allusion.
Thompson’s 1961 painting The Snook (The Sack) illustrates his distinctive blend of lucid color and ambiguous narrative. Installed on an orange title wall, the painting sends red and blue clouds slanting through a purple-white sky, under which a frieze of unmodulated bubblegum-pink, tangerine-orange, canary-yellow, bright blue, and maroon figures interact across the painting’s groundline. These prismatically painted people engage in an unexplained yet ominous scene around a central tree trunk. A maroon man in a yellow dunce cap and a yellow man in a wide-brimmed hat seem to lead a cloaked figure away as blue and brown figures wrestle someone into a lavender sack, their legs kicking toward the sky. The simplified figures obscure any one identity; Thompson left only attributes, shapes, and gestures to guide the viewer’s understanding of the narrative. Fastidiously composed, The Snook (The Sack) impresses itself urgently and irresolvably on the viewer.
Organized thematically, the exhibition includes sections devoted to leitmotifs in the artist’s work, such as “Judgment and Visibility”; Thompson’s life embedded with jazz and literary greats of his era; his use of erotic and utopian imagery; his unstinting use of art historical sources (addressed as “variations” in Childs’s catalog essay and, in Sims’s, as “signification” in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s sense of the word); and searing and complex social commentary. This curatorial structure offers opportunities to make connections between works that are not organized chronologically, while also demonstrating the ingenuity of Thompson’s visual and conceptual interests as they threaded through his embodied experience as a Black American artist.
Thompson cast an unflinching eye, for example, on Christianity’s ubiquitous crucifixion images and their correspondence with images of Black men lynched in the United States. In their respective catalog essays, both Bridget R. Cooks and Crystal N. Feimster connect the widely reported lynchings of Emmett Till in 1955 and Mack Charles Parker in 1959 as key contexts for Thompson’s life and painting. Both Till and Mack were lynched for their alleged interactions with white women, and Cooks and Feimster consider the particular violence meted out to Black men on that premise as a pressing context for the intertwining crucifixion and lynching imagery Thompson employed in several works from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Feimster uncovers how Thompson interwove images of sexual liberation and the threat of violence in paintings such as Black Monster and The Hanging (both from 1959). She explains that “by 1959, young radical African Americans, including Thompson, were articulating a new Black sense of freedom that linked interracial sex with radical equality and Black freedom” (115). In Thompson’s canvases, the threat of violence and a rich eroticism merge and menace each other.
If the exhibition demonstrates the force of Thompson’s critique, it also rings with joy in the sensual, with humor, and with fearlessness in the face of historical precedent. The Assumption (1964) seems an irreverent take on the classic Titian composition in which Mary is spirited toward a cloaked God by a churning carpet of clouds through an oculus of golden light. In Thompson’s Assumption, a red-haired woman with thick blue wings leans back on a brushy pink-over-blue, cloud-like stratum, pulling her dress up high enough to reveal the bright red wedge of her pubis, as a gesticulating crowd of electric red and yellow figures crowd over a raspberry-pink, splay-legged bird who sits on the ground with a shocked expression, perhaps a burlesque of the ascendant woman’s exposure. Thompson’s deft iconographic forms satirize and transform art’s history, recasting a new drama (and even farce) from storied parts.
In short, This House Is Mine gathers Bob Thompson’s full but brief life as a painter and person immersed in his many sources and communities, and rebuilds enough of his distinctive visual and intellectual world that we can experience it as freshly open and freshly given. Situating Thompson as already historical, as currently relevant, and as already institutionally recognized, the exhibition brings the artist’s fearless explorations into the fuller light they have long deserved. We can see what it looked like for this brilliant Black American artist in the late 1950s and 1960s to seize any usable source and imagine it bigger, brighter, and more alive. This is Bob Thompson’s house, and now, because of this exhibition, we can cross its threshold.
Department of Art, University of Maine at Augusta