“He raises the bar for me”: 4 artists on the influence of Bob Thompson

The legacy of painter Bob Thompson, who died at age 28 in 1966, is far out of proportion to his short life. A retrospective now at Colby College Art Museum in Waterville, Maine, through January 9, presents a stunning take on a black painter who drew inspiration from the Old Masters; his daring attitude to art history is summed up in the title of the exhibition, “This House is Mine”.

Thompson often cites inspirations like Goya and Poussin, but his unmistakable style is marked by bright, solid-colored silhouettes, set in often mysterious scenarios in pastoral settings. His treatment of religious themes such as martyrs indirectly refers to the black experience of Jim Crow America; the Kentucky-born artist was only a teenager when Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. A few years later he moved to New York and joined avant-garde circles, participating in organized Happenings by Allan Kaprow and painting portraits of the writers. Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg.

Thompson’s most recent major exhibition, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1998, was curated by Thelma Golden, now director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. (Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times that the show “is filled with raw talent and unquenchable ambition that is engaging and irresistible, even though Thompson never really took control of them.”)

Many artists collect his work, from Alex Katz, whose foundation donated works to the Colbys, to Charline von Heyl and Christopher Wool, lenders of the show. In a poetic illustration of Thompson’s importance to his peers, the catalog cover pages show the reverse side of a Rosalyn Drexler canvas, stretcher bars and all, revealing he was painted on the back of a Thompson’s unfinished painting recovered from among the objects he discarded in 1961..

“I think it exists outside of time,” says Diana Tuite, curator of the new exhibition. “He brings to his work a deep understanding and relentless curiosity about what it takes to put a composition together. I think this is the reason why so many artists return to the work, live with the works and want to keep returning the work in their minds.

Nevertheless, Thompson’s work is not as well known as it could be. But after it closed in Maine in January, the exhibit moved to the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, ensuring an attentive look by the new generations. (The market may already be catching up; last month, “The bargaining(1961) sold for $ 212,500 at Christie’s, against a high estimate of $ 50,000.)

Four artists – Peter Doig, Rashid Johnson, Naudline Pierre and Henry Taylor – told The Times how Thompson inspired them. Here are edited excerpts from their conversations.

Hilton Als and I hosted a show called “Self-Awareness” at VeneKlasen / Werner Gallery in Berlin in 2010, for which we borrowed two works by Thompson. That’s when I started spending a lot of time looking at his work, and ended up buying one. I couldn’t bear to send him back. I watch him for almost every day, which has been a great source of pleasure and intrigue with his freedom and his wit.

It is an unusual place, called “Europe”, based on the Greek myth [in which Zeus, in the form of a bull, seduces the Phoenician princess Europa and carries her away]. It really feels like it’s coming out of a dream. Inspiration, for me, comes from where he dares to go and the space he portrays. Maybe the dream space sounds a bit mundane, but some artists make works that work in a way that makes you feel like you’re showing hell, but is closely related to our reality. It is not a question of realism but of a form of expressionism. Sometimes you can think like you’re in Arcadia, but others almost Hell. There is a foreboding and obscurity.

Europa “dates from 1958, when he was making images with dark figures, hat-capped and crouching. So even if it’s based on a myth, with a naked figure riding a bull, in the background, there is a figure that almost looks like a spy from the contemporary world.

It is difficult to approach. I don’t want to be so close that I have to quote it. Inspiration comes from other ways in my case, such as what I described about dreaming, from the underworld. There is a timelessness in his work.

His paintings are very sophisticated and mundane. The thing with Thompson is that he died at an age where most artists are students. I didn’t start exhibiting until I was almost 40 years old. The work looks young, unfortunately, because it was. He feels fresh and daring and brave. He was not a hesitant youngster.

I learned about Thompson’s work over 20 years ago. I became mesmerized by its project, its resonance, its allegorical nature, its lack of dependence on a particular philosophy to evoke a complicated narration of the world we live in.

Bob’s work deals with the relationship to landscape and the complexity of how many black people think of the outdoors. The history that we have to negotiate around this subject, especially in this country, is quite busy, due to our history of working the land as “property” providing free labor. There are many opportunities to explore what and how these spaces inform our understanding of the landscape.

A lot of my conversations about him start with me bringing up Bob’s work and the person in front of me expressing that they are unfamiliar. [with it]. I have included it in shows that I have organized. I have been informed by his work from several points of view. As we continue to redefine the way canonical systems notify us and re-establish the parameters for how we identify important projects, it will continue to play a more important role. The leash becomes shorter so that people are unfamiliar.

Thompson feels like he’s part of a lineage to me. Like a distant member of the family. You can absorb someone’s influence, and it manifests itself in different ways. There is certainly the sense of color, the flattening of the three-dimensional aspects of the figure, the overlapping of bodies and the subtraction of details for the sake of composition. There is a lot of imagination in his work, and I’m also not interested in things that seem real, but rather unreal.

I can’t help but think of the race. In my daily existence, I feel spaces where people like me have not been seen. But I also think of the freedom to create my own version of these spaces, exploding what has been done before. I remix, reinvent and reinvent, and I just paint what I want to see and feel, like he did.

People want context, a way to situate my work, and it’s important to have someone who came before me. I’m still talking about El Greco, Bob and William Blake. Obviously, I have more influences, but these are my three. I will keep coming back until I have exhausted all the ways I can use them.

I immediately loved Bob’s work. I think I ran into him in a bookstore. I was like, “Damn, how come they didn’t tell me?” It was like a gem. I was ecstatic. He just hit hard right away.

He was figurative, but he ignored everything. He said, “I’m going to make a black person blue and a blue person red.” Look at Picasso. He had a blue period. How much freedom does that give you? Thompson loved music and ran with Ornette Coleman. He was an avant-garde artist. Free association, which is why you can be intuitive and have a representation occupying the same space. The less you join, the more you are free. It takes a lot of courage.

He does not necessarily deconstruct but reinterprets, as Picasso reinterpreted Velázquez. Many of us do.

I even made a painting of him just to remind myself. It was a nod. Dude, that orange. The palette of people is just different sometimes. It looks so good and it feels good. You might like seeing red but you don’t carry Red. You don’t try to to do him. But you don’t mind if something permeates.

Human beings, we may all be connected! Black, white, yellow. Red, yellow, blue, maybe he was thinking of all that too. I mean, he married a white woman.

Many people use bright colors. But your orange doesn’t hit like that. He also sets the bar high for me.

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