The Nice Bob Thompson, in Two Elements


Few painters have used colour as vigorously or as variously as Bob Thompson, the outstanding, pushed American artist who was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1937, and died in Rome on the point of his twenty ninth birthday in 1966, worn down by in poor health well being, substance abuse and a seemingly relentless work ethic. However Thompson by no means doubted his expertise and had a voracious urge for food for tradition in lots of types: He consorted with New York’s Beat poets and its free jazz musicians in addition to a broad vary of artists. His profession lasted barely eight years, however he left behind a number of hundred work, drawings and oil research — a wonderful horde whose magnitude remains to be not well-known.

Thompson’s artwork was fed foremost by the European portray canon. From Giotto to Manet, he appropriated, subverted and reworked their masterpieces by the easy act of recasting their figures and typically their landscapes into saturated colours that also are joltingly up to date — and performance in methods that may really feel extra absolutely narrative, spatial, psychological, political and retinal than colours usually do.

Some works are pretty true to the originals of their composition; elsewhere Thompson took liberties of every kind. Frequent additions embody massive silhouettes of monstrous birds that shield, threaten or assault — both bodily or spiritually. Generally the human figures grasp the birds by their toes, holding them aloft, like trophies or weapons.

Since 1998, there have been two main alternatives to review Thompson’s greatness: In that yr, Thelma Golden, now the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum of Harlem, and Judith Wilson, the main Thompson scholar, organized a retrospective on the Whitney Museum, which sadly didn’t journey. In 2021 Diana Tuite curated a retrospective on the Colby School Museum of Artwork in Waterville, Me., that traveled to Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles, however skipped New York. One way or the other, no New York museum noticed the Colby present as a possibility to measure the more and more numerous artwork world, with individuals of colour and feminine artists turning into extra seen, that emerged within the almost quarter-century hole between the 2 exhibits.

This spring New York has had a considerable comfort prize: a mixed complete of 30 Thompson work from 1959 to 1966 offered by two galleries whose notably totally different home types and monetary buildings type an attention-grabbing subtext of their very own — old skool versus new faculty.

The extra glamorous present is, no shock, courtesy of a mega gallery. It’s at 52 Walker, an area in TriBeCa established by David Zwirner’s world franchise in 2021 to give attention to conceptual and research-based artists, within the phrases of a gallery assertion. Its founding director is the seller Ebony L. Haynes, who additionally organized the Thompson present. Supposed to perform extra as a kunsthalle — or alternate area — than a promoting ground, 52 Walker was a savvy transfer: 4 of its 14 work are from museums and the remainder from non-public collections, and should not on the market.

The 52 Walker present, “Bob Thompson: So allow us to all be residents,” has a museum-like gravitas with the artwork in a roomy area with partitions painted a mild darkish blue that offsets the aggressiveness of Thompson’s palette.

A lot of the work are nice or shut. The standouts embody two early works: darkish moody, expressionistic work from 1960 indebted to Gauguin, “Wagadu” and “The Gambol.” In addition they point out that Thompson’s work from 1958 by means of early 1961, when he made his first and longest journey to Europe, deserve a present of their very own. Additionally from 1960 is “Bacchanal,” whose mild brushy floor and violent tumult of figures replicate the velocity of Thompson’s development at this level.

Two 1964 work from the Whitney Museum are overpowering. “An Allegory” is enchanting for the frieze-like progress of a stately wagon whose passengers are watched over by a big blue chicken; behind them, the sweep of land, water, islands and sky is breathtaking. All besides the Summary Expressionist-style clouds echo settings from Renaissance work. “Triumph of Bacchus” pushes ahead a raucous band of celebrants (individuals, animals, birds) in fiery colours, offset by inexperienced. Two elephants in a deep purple-blue and the brilliant orange silhouette of a giraffe enrich the palette and remind us that Bacchus stopped in India. Thompson’s small, almost an identical examine for this portray, within the Hirshhorn Museum, is titled “The Indian Triumph of Bacchus (After Poussin).”

By coincidence greater than by collaboration, “Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy” may be seen at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Chelsea. This veteran institution with one location has represented the Thompson property since 1996, owned it since 2019, and staged six solos of the artist’s work. The Rosenfeld present is extra intimate — due to a slew of energetic drawings and different materials — but additionally extra uneven in revealing methods.

Issues flip sinister in some items, like “Untitled (The Proofing of the Cross),” from 1963, which takes its theme from Piero della Francesca. Among the kneeling figures seem to be area aliens, however extra disturbing are the three monumental birds looming over the scene and one other peeking in from the best.

Generally you possibly can think about the artist a portray and saying, “OK. That’s carried out sufficient. On to the subsequent. “ In “The Circus” (1963), two massive birds (inexperienced and blue) press down on two muscular male silhouettes (purple and yellow). Is that this a circus act? Tag staff wrestlers making ready for a match? Two musicians within the clutches of their interior demons? As soon as these figures are in place, Thompson fills the background shortly, albeit with an off-the-cuff aptitude you don’t typically see in his work. The circles and dots in inexperienced, black and pink jogged my memory of Vuillardian wallpaper; then I realized that they extra probably are shorthand for a crowd of listeners.

Gauguin is evoked right here, too. On the middle of the topsy-turvy “The Entombment” — one other brushy-surfaced work from 1960 — the yellow decrease half of a physique might belong to Gauguin’s yellow Christ, though He appears to have been changed by a She. There’s a veritable spatial spin to “Untitled (Oh Lawd!)” (1963), a form of inverted Pietà. The mom determine right here appears to be a purple Christ, whose truncated arms resemble a cross, holding a yellow feminine on his lap.

Thompson’s legacy is advanced. His action-packed scenes and irregular shapes could make colour appear extra intense and actively retinal than in most summary portray. Together with artists like William H. Johnson, Stuart Davis, Nellie Mae Rowe and Robert Colescott, his work set a precedent for a lot of youthful representational painters utilizing high-keyed palettes. Thompson emphatically opened the previous as a residing useful resource whereas claiming one of many pinnacles of white, male Western tradition for future use by others. The borrowed compositions had been for him ready-mades — armatures. Like his impatient, unfussy surfaces, they saved him time which he refused ever to waste, all the way down to the final minute.

Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy

By July 7, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 110 eleventh Avenue 212-247-.0082;

Bob Thompson: So allow us to all be residents
By July 8, 52 Walker Road, (212) 727-1961;


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