In a review of a 1998 Bob Thompson retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith praised the painter’s “raw talent and unquenchable ambition.” But, she writes: “Too many of these paintings are irresolute and indifferently painted. Their figures and colors intertwine rather than freeze, circumventing the sense of correctness or inevitability from basic to “awesome”. ”
More than 20 years later, Colby College’s current investigation of Thompson, “This House is Mine” (through January 9), has given me the chance to test this view, with which I find I couldn’t disagree more. Thompson was a man with demons and addiction issues who painted so feverishly that in less than a decade before his death, aged just 29, he produced some 1,000 works.
Are they all awesome? Of course not. But the fact that many of them aren’t bound by a neat arc and don’t display a “sense of rightness” is exactly what makes them powerful and sometimes, yes, even awesome. Irresolution, in fact, was Thompson’s reality, and you would be hard pressed to find more poignant or powerful expressions of this state of being anxious in the history of art.
Violence and eroticism – sometimes a combination of the two – are a disconcerting undercurrent throughout the show. Thompson was a black man painting in the tumultuous racial atmosphere of the 1960s, so it’s no surprise to see paintings of lynchings, such as “The Hanging” and “The Execution.”
The latter is particularly brutal, showing not only a black figure hanging from a tree, but also three kneeling figures who have been decapitated. Who they are, what their offense was and what race they are remain unclear, hinting at Thompson’s much larger goals.
He was not a polemicist, consciously avoiding “black” art. Which does not mean that he has turned away from these problems either. In many paintings, nubile women are threatened by large black monsters, likely a reference to the predatory, oversexualized white view of black masculinity.
But in paintings like “Execution” he points to the more pervasive and persistent problem of cruelty and injustice as endemic to our nature. We see it in the way Thompson adapts famous Old Master paintings for his own purposes.
His “Untitled (after Poussin)” reproduces the two men from “Autumn or a bunch of grapes from the promised land” by the classical Baroque painter, who carry between them a wooden pole. But whereas in the 1660 work the pole is loaded with the fruit of the title, in Thompson the pole is used to carry the carcass of a man.
Thompson made his own versions of many Old Master paintings that depicted mythological and religious subjects. In some, like “Perseus and Andromeda”, the correlations with the original (in this case Titian) are direct and obvious.
But in many others, he changed the themes provocatively to convey darker messages about the human condition. Seeing them through the prism of mythological and religious imagery, Thompson suggests that cruelty and injustice have plagued us since ancient times and are karmically inevitable. It all comes down to the perpetual struggle between good and evil.
Among his classical references were Piero della Francesca, Lucas Cranach, Tintoretto, Titian, Francisco Goya and Nicholas Poussin. Yet he interprets them using a modern pictorial language, figurative treatment and color palette derived from the French Fauves and, sometimes – although not mentioned in the wall plaques – German Blue Rider painters (particularly the horses by Franz Marc and the featureless faces of August Macke). There are also allusions, although more sullen, to Matisse. And, of course, Thompson was greatly influenced by the near-primitive modern style of Jan Muller, whose work he discovered early in his career.
His ability to synthesize so many artistic periods and genres is no small feat, even if his modern means can sometimes seem raw and crude. The figures in Thompson’s paintings are not always clear, appearing both human and animal.
But rather than seeing this as evidence that the paintings were quickly erased or, as Smith put it, “indiscriminately painted over”, I couldn’t help but think of this crudeness as a deliberate allusion and manifestation of the state painter’s bustle and bustle interior. irresolution. The paintings are far too busy to be “indifferent” in any way. Thompson’s work seems literate and polished, but also unfiltered and angsty.
In some works, such as the title painting of the exhibition, “This House Is Mine,” we sense Thompson’s sense of isolation. The painting depicts a dark figure in a hat in the background and a female figure in the foreground. It immediately reminded me of Paul Gauguin’s “Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin”, in which the French post-impressionist portrays himself as an outsider to society.
In the 1888 painting, Gauguin is wearing a cap and has a mournful expression. The woman in the foreground seems to have just closed the door between them to keep him at bay. Gauguin felt misunderstood and underestimated in France. Three years after having executed this work, he went into exile in Tahiti. The remarkable similarity to Gauguin’s composition and the slightly withdrawn, combed and coated figure give Thompson’s all-black figure an autobiographical feel.
Not all of Thompson’s art is tortured and difficult. His homages to jazz greats – including Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Haden – feel celebrated in paintings such as ‘Garden of Music’. And religious works such as “Nativity Scene,” a long, narrow canvas in which the infant Jesus reclines on a blue horse, are sublimely and reverentially beautiful, with a luxuriance of color that might keep you glued to the canvas. for hours.
Another painting, “Blue Madonna”, is a hybrid of a religious scene and visualized music. The Virgin and Child occupy the right side of the picture plane. The middle is occupied by figures moving behind and between a series of trees. The trees decompose the plan in an almost cubist way, confusing surface and depth. As our eyes move from left to right, colors emerge and recede, along with people, creating a visual rhythm that echoes the syncopations of jazz.
There is so much to see here and so much variety it can seem overwhelming. The show takes up two floors, and with all the garish colors, the themes both ecstatic and nightmarish, the abundance of art historical references, the conflicting quality of many large canvases, the myths, allegories and apologues…it demands a lot of time and concentration to get out of it.
Too much of the show is probably best handled on multiple return visits. But the glut also serves to underscore our inability to classify Thompson or his art.
The artist himself realized he had a unique and idiosyncratic voice, once telling the Louisville Gazette, “I can’t find a place or a category to put my paintings in or a name to call them .”
His fearlessness and commitment in themselves suggest greatness of vision. In my opinion, Thompson’s ambition and singular imagination have resulted in a number of paintings that could easily be called “great”.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]