Featured in
Issue 222

Three Takes on Bob Thompson

In celebration of Thompson's current retrospective, 'This House Is Mine', at the Colby Museum of Art, Mainetwo artists and a writer reflect on the short but prolific career of the legendary Black painter 

+4
BY Tunji Adeniyi-Jones, Peter Doig, Jessica Lynne AND Terence Trouillot in Profiles | 21 SEP 21

'Bob Thompson was a hell of a painter', Sam Gilliam told me years ago in his studio in Washington, D.C. The two Black artists both studied painting at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1950s – at the height of school desegregation in the US. Born and raised in Louisville, Thompson dropped out of medical school in Boston in 1956 and returned home to pursue painting. In 1966, he tragically died in Rome of a heroin overdose aged just 28. In that ten-year span, Thompson was one of the most prolific painters, producing a body of work that still warrants out attention.

— Terence Trouillot

Bob Thompson,Stairway to the Stars, c.1962, oil and photostat on Masonite, 102 × 152 cm. Courtesy: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York
Bob Thompson,Stairway to the Stars, c.1962, oil and photostat on Masonite, 102 × 152 cm. Courtesy: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York

THE SOUTHERN PAINTER

Bob Thompson came to me with a spirit so prescient that to stand before one of his paintings feels akin to a chance encounter with the divine. In ‘Naked at the Edge’, his 2015 solo exhibition at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York, I could hardly turn away from Stairway to the Stars (c.1962) for fear that I might miss a detail amongst the figures rendered in the queue. What can we know of colour until we have witnessed Thompson’s lexicon? How can we understand what a figure on canvas can do until we have been confronted by Thompson’s belief in the silhouette, the shadow and kineticism? Yes, Thompson himself was no deity – a mere human, like us – but his paintings make me want to believe deeply in the gods among us.

Maybe, too, this is because Thompson was a jazz man – like so many (Black) artists of his generation – attuned to the poetics of a haunting, the sensuality of the otherworldly and the nebulousness of nature’s binaries. Thompson, riffing off a Western canon that couldn’t quite hold onto an artist like him. Thompson, spinning and turning a tradition in on itself. Thompson, holding the long note because he knew the truth about breath: that is, he knew the truth about what it meant to be alive, fully.

Every southern US artist comes to me a hero: complicated and intriguing, magnanimous and holy. It seems we are born of particular flames, whose embers remain aglow long after the fire itself has been quenched. It is, perhaps, a foolish romanticism but represents, nonetheless, the terms under which I understand my kin and, dare I say, myself.

Jessica Lynne

Bob Thompson, Blue Madonna , 1961. Oil on canvas. 51 1/2 × 74 3/4 in. (130.8 × 189.9 cm). The Detroit Institute of Arts. Gift of Edward Levine in memory of Bob Thompson. © Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York. Photo: The Detroit Institute of Arts, USA / Bridgeman Images
Bob Thompson, Blue Madonna, 1961, oil on canvas, 131 × 190 cm. Courtesy: the Detroit Institute of Arts and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York; photography: Bridgeman Images

MUSICAL COLOUR

I first encountered Bob Thompson’s work in 2015 as part of the group exhibition ‘Tightrope Walk’ at White Cube in London. I found myself immediately drawn to his painting Untitled (1963), a large landscape portraying a dense gathering of shapes and forms. The image began to reveal itself further: I could see yellow figures with saturated orange hair and a ghostly expression staring right back at me. It was both unique and familiar. I had never seen his work before, but I felt an instant relation to it. What followed was an indescribable feeling of wanting to get back to work in the studio immediately. At the time, I was grappling with exactly what kind of painter I aspired to be – to a large extent, I still am – but this was a moment of genuine revelation. I knew that I wanted to paint bodies and explore colour, but the particulars were missing.

In Thompson’s work, I saw a striking balance of everything I desired from the medium. I was able to read his painting like a musical score: there were moments of quiet that crescendoed into booming scenery and hyper-expressive gestures. There was also an incredible tension present in the work: between figuration and abstraction but also between the historical and mythological. He established a robust and complex visual language that brought balance to classical renaissance iconography by translating the human form into solid, bold colour.

There is a boundless mystery and intrigue to his works. What were these dramatic scenes depicting? When did this take place? It was clear that Thompson enjoyed digesting and synthesizing multiple histories, in search of his own place within it all. He was questioning representations of the Black body in painting and redefining the means of self-expression. I was compelled to continue asking myself these same questions, and to do so with a liberal use of colour.

Tunji Adeniyi-Jones

Bob Thompson, Garden of Music , 1960. Oil on canvas. 79 1/2 × 143 in. (201.9 × 363.2 cm). Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund. © Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York. Photo: Allen Phillips / Wadsworth Atheneum
Bob Thompson, Garden of Music, 1960, oil on canvas, 202 × 363 cm. Courtesy: the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York; photography: Allen Phillips

THE MANY WORLDS OF BOB THOMPSON 

I had only seen a few of Bob Thompson’s paintings in the flesh prior to selecting two with the writer Hilton Als for an exhibition we put together in 2012 called ‘Self Consciousness’ at VeneKlasen Werner, Berlin. One was his painting Europa (1958), which I assume is based on the Ancient Greek abduction myth whereby the god Jupiter, disguised as a white bull, seduces Princess Europa away from her companions to the island of Crete. François Boucher, Luca Giordano, Henri Matisse, Titian, Paolo Veronese and many other European masters were also inspired by the tale. Thompson’s version takes place in a painterly abstracted grassy environ, forested very sparsely by four trees. Behind one hides a dark figure in a black coat and hat. The bull has become a grimacing beast and Europa a quietly controlling female presence. I look at this painting every day, totally transfixed and yet still baffled by the virtuosity of its composition.

Even now, when I see a painting by Thompson in real life, I am pulled right in and stopped dead in my tracks. His works always seem to stand out in a room no matter what their company. With his brilliant use of saturated colours and strange shapely forms, Thompson created a new type of expressionist narrative that was unusually absent of facial expressions but nevertheless full of emotion. His paintings are important because they are so open and timeless and demonstrate that painting does not have to tell you everything – or, indeed, anything at all. His work brings us into other worlds, much like those of Francisco Goya, hovering between dreams and nightmares, which sometimes harrowingly depict real-life horror mixed in with the bacchanalia found in painting’s deep history.

Peter Doig

'Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine', is on view at the Colby Museum of Art, Maine, US, until 9 January 2022. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 222 as part of a special series titled 'Painting Now'. 

Main image: Bob Thompson, The Snook (The Sack), 1961, oil on canvas, 60 × 91 cm. Courtesy: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York

Tunji Adeniyi-Jones is a figurative painter exploring West African history and its associated mythology, taking inspiration from both his Yoruba heritage and his upbringing in London, UK.

Peter Doig is an artist. His work is included in ‘Mixing It Up: Painting Today’ at Hayward Gallery, London, UK, until 12 December, ‘Life Between Islands’ at Tate Britain, London, until 3 April 2022 and ‘Ouverture’, the inaugural show at the Bourse de Commerce, Paris, France. In 2020, he had a survey exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Japan. He lives in Trinidad.

Jessica Lynne is a critic and a founding editor of ARTS.BLACK based in coastal Virginia, USA.

Terence Trouillot is associate editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

SHARE THIS