Bob Thompson’s short, but dynamic, career began in the late 1950s and ended in his premature death less than a decade later. Like other artists of his generation in New York, Thompson developed a vital new figurative style in reaction to the dominance of abstract art, yet adapted its spontaneity, scale, and expressive use of color.
The Spinning, Spinning, Turning, Directing [SAAM, 1980.137.104] is a drama of bold exaggerations. Its principals are fantastic creatures whose silhouettes and unnatural colors distort their human, animal, or phantom origins. Sweeping curves, sharp zigzags, and steep diagonals rhythmically link the figures as they stand, sit, fall, or fly in their arbitrary space. A single tree in an arched opening focuses the scene, suggesting a cave that shelters its strange inhabitants from a brightly lit landscape.
Thompson was inspired by the play of good and evil, which creates both order and chaos in the relationships of man, animals, and nature. In his vision, nude female figures express nature’s sensuality, while birds symbolize power and freedom as well as his preoccupation with the ultimate flight of death. Thompson revered the Old Masters, including Piero della Francesca, Masaccio, and Poussin, and used their works as points of departure. In The Spinning, Spinning, Turning, Directing, he reinterpreted images from three of Goya’s Los Caprichos: Tale Bearers, Hobgoblins, andRise and Fall. Whether sensual, spiritual, or tortured, Thompson’s paintings are metaphors of both the rational and irrational forces of nature.
Lynda Roscoe Hartigan African-American Art: 19th and 20th-Century Selections (brochure. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art)
“I paint many paintings that tell me slowly that I have something inside of me that is just bursting, twisting, sticking, spilling over to get out. Out into souls and mouths and eyes that have never seen before. The Monsters are present now on my canvas as in my dreams. …”
—Gylbert Coker, The World of Bob Thompson, (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1979), 21 – 22.
Between 1958 and 1966, Bob Thompson was a talented, bohemian artist as well as one whose success in the New York art world was nothing short of phenomenal. Tragically, his life was cut short by his dissipated habits but more importantly, Bob Thompson produced an innovative body of metaphoric paintings at a time when both “classical” art historical sources and figurative styles were scorned.
Thompson’s rather unremarkable early years were spent in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was born on June 26, 1937. Thompson’s mother was a school teacher who instilled in her children the value of education.
When Thompson was thirteen his father was killed in an automobile accident. Young Robert became deeply depressed, and his mother sent him to Boston to live with his older sister and her husband. Thompson’s mother wanted her son to become a doctor, and Thompson enrolled in a pre-med program at Boston University in 1955. He quickly, however, became bored with the program and his depression continued. Robert Holmes, his brother-in-law, remembered Thompson’s childhood love of art and encouraged him to develop his talents as a means of alleviating his grief. Thompson returned home and in September 1956 enrolled as an art student at the University of Louisville. Soon he became involved with an intellectual art circle that held regular meetings and discussions.
During Thompson’s junior year at the University of Louisville, one of his teachers, Mary N. Spencer, suggested that he would benefit from a summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts. There were two important art schools in the old fishing village of Provincetown — the Seong Moy Art School and an older, more established institution under the direction of Hans Hofmann, the innovative abstract expressionist painter. One of Hofmann’s students at that time was the young artist Jan Müller, who departed from Hofmann’s aesthetic principles of nonobjective painting in a figurativeigurative style.
Provincetown was an exciting environment for Thompswas especiallysespecially attracted to Müller’s figural paintings and the works of Red Grooms, from Nashville, Tennessee. Grooms was also involved in performances that were later called “Happenings” and represented a new aesthetic concept. Thompson was an active participant in many of Grooms’ productions.
During the fall of 1958 Thompson returned to the University of Louisville and developed a keen interest in Italian Renaissance painting. He began copying works by Masaccio, Fra Angelico, and Piero della Francesca to develop his own visual vocabulary. He would later reinvent these images in his own personalized manner. Following his invigorating experiences in Provincetown, Thompson realized that his environment in Louisville could never fulfill his artistic needs. In the middle of the fall semester of his senior year Thompson moved to New York.
Upon his arrival in New York, Thompson discovered that his Provincetown cohorts, Christopher Lane, Red Grooms, and Jay Milder, had opened the City Gallery. Thompson moved in with Milder, joined the City Gallery, and began experimenting with the scientific perspective techniques of the Italian Renaissance. These experiments were subsequently transformed into contemporary reinterpretations of biblical themes.
Thompson rose quickly among the ranks of New York artists. His first one-man exhibition was held at the Delancey Street Museum, a space created by his friend Red Grooms. Next was a two-man exhibition with Jay Milder at the influential Zabriskie Gallery. In December 1960 Thompson married Carol Plenda,* whom he had met in Provincetown, and he was seen frequently at openings, night clubs, and other social gatherings.
In 1961 Thompson and his wife traveled to Europe and settled in Glacière, France, with the help of a Walter Gutman Foundation grant. He was awarded a John Hay Whitney grant in 1962 to continue his European work. In 1963 Thompson moved to Ibiza, Spain, and returned to New York late that year with a large body of new paintings. An old friend, Lester Johnson, arranged a meeting begallery owneron and galleryowner Martha Jackson that resulted in a one-man exhibition and invitation to join the stable of artists shown by Jackson’s gallery.
Representation by the influential Martha Jackson Gallery assured Thompson’s recognition in the art world. His paintings began appearing in exhibitions around the country, and critics proclaimed the genius of the new, young, African-American master of Renaissance themes with a contemporary focus. Thompson’s paintings were large, figurative, bright, raw, and unorthodox in their use of color, with birds and other winged creatures appearing as ubiquitous symbols. Some of Thompson’s paintings were autobiographical, and many reflect his longstanding interest in music.
By 1964, when he was only twenty-eight years old, Thompson had experienced unprecedented success for an African-American artist. He painted incessantly and lived extravagantly. He longed to return to Europe, specifically to Rome, to study Renaissance art. With proceeds from his exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery, Thompson financed a trip to Rome in November 1965. In March 1966, Thompson underwent emergency gall bladder surgery in Rome. His doctors suggested a long period of recuperation but Thompson resumed his hectic lifestyle almost immediately. On May 30, 1966, less than a month before his twenty-ninth birthday, he died in Rome of lung complications. During a remarkably short career Thompson produced more than one thousand paintings as testimony to his unfaltering albeit meteoric commitment to his art.
* “Free within Ourselves” catalog lists the name as Penda, per correspondence from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, the owner of the Estate of Bob Thompson, the name is Plenda.
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)