Bob Thompson: Desire, Elation, and Trauma in Paradise
Updated: Nov 16, 2022
Review of “Bob Thompson: This House is Mine,” at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, New Art Examiner Winter Quarter 2022
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.
-Bob Thompson 1
The artist…cannot take flight to the Elysian Fields of the preciousness of perfection, the prism of the eye, but has to deal with matter complex. -Jan Müller 2
For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language.
-James Baldwin 3
I clearly recall the sense of joy I felt when I first encountered Bob Thompson’s paintings. It was the late 1980s in New York City when the age of Neo Expressionist painting was on the wane but interest in figurative expressionism lingered in particular corners of the art gallery scene. Here was an artist that boldly reimagined Fauvism with a psychedelic palette typical of the brightly colored poster art of the 1960s. He presented a joyous peaceable kingdom of multicolored men and women that comingled race and sex with an abstract and rhythmic composition. Still, I felt the dancing and reclining figures were also uncanny and mysterious as faceless silhouettes. For all their ebullience I sensed a moodiness just below the surface. There was a mystery hidden in these bacchanales that I had yet to discover.
The Smart Museum of Art's retrospective of Bob Thompson went a long way in answering questions that first eluded me. Robert Louis Thompson was born into a middle-class black family in Louisville Kentucky in 1937. He had an early attraction to art and jazz, a therapeutic need he pursued following the death of his father in a violent car accident when he was only 13. From 1957–58 he studied painting at the University of Louisville but left in 1958 to join a supportive and dynamic coterie of musicians, artists, and writers in New York City.
Thompson’s work is a continuation of a particular modernist African-American art tradition exemplified by Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. Lawrence painted scenes of African-American history and struggle, composing with bold shapes, flat abstract patterns, and bright colors to create expressive tableaus. Bearden, who traveled to Paris in 1950, adapted the figural compositions he saw in the museum works of the old masters into his own innovative jazzy modernist-based idiom. Both Bearden's and Lawrence's lives in New York City reflected the special dynamic of the Harlem Renaissance, similar to the way Thompson’s work expressed the transformative energy of the civil rights and black liberation movements happening there in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Thompson had numerous opportunities to visit Europe, where he spent much time visiting museums to study old master paintings. He is well known for “riffing” on their mythology and religious theme-based compositions with a bright jazzy color that infused both his landscapes and figures. Homage to Nina Simone(1965) is based on Nicholas Poussin’s Bacchanal with a Lute Player painted in 1527–28.
The Milky Way comes from Tintoretto’s 1575 painting on the same mythological theme. Bright color becomes a way of aesthetically harmonizing the social unity and sexual engagement between the races. These popular signature works reflect an integrated “paradise” in an abstract modernist style, visualizing society as a peaceable kingdom of equality, even with a sense of Matissian luxe, calme, and volupté.
At times this peaceful seeming pastorale becomes ruptured by disturbing acts—reflecting the turmoil of the times. The Civil Rights and black liberation movements of the the 1950s and 60s rose to challenge white supremacist oppression against the sexual and social intermingling of the races, black rights and black self-determination. It was a time of transformation in America which Thompson understood all too well growing up under Jim Crow segregation in Kentucky. His use of the old master mythological and religious themes of rescue, abduction, and execution are reinvented as a means of expressing the cruelty of white supremacist terror. The Execution based on a religious altarpiece by Fra Angelico (1395–1455) is transforms into a woodland lynching scene. A bound black figure hanging from a tree is about to be struck by an executioner’s bloody sword while an indifferent group
of onlookers socialize among themselves.
The German figurative expressionist painter Jan Müller (1922–1958) had a particular impact on Thompson. He first encountered his work at a popular artist’s colony in Provincetown Massachusetts in 1958 shortly following Müller’s death. Because Müller’s German parents were dedicated socialists, he and his family were forced to flee Nazi persecution in 1933, living a life of fear and precarity throughout Europe. He eventually arrived in the U.S. and settled in New York City in 1945. There he was befriended by the Abstract Expressionist Hans Hoffman and studied at his famous school of fine art in Greenwich Village, famous as a meeting place for the American Abstract Expressionists. The profound precarity of his own life informed the intensity of his compositions and their expressive symbolism.
“Jan did not fear physical death—but the horror in life, the Hell of conformity and spiritual death. But the spirit of life, the spirit of freedom, the freedom to search, and the faith—the faith beyond searching—are here in the witches, the angels, the paths, and the Man on the Horse.”4
Müller’s work impacted Thompson’s work in several ways. His female figures are the main protagonists of his tableaus: sexual and earthy, crawling like animals, supine on the ground, or leaping out of the sky as witches or angels. These same pink or light-colored female figures become central in Thompson’s work, along with the influence of Müller’s male horse riders, expressively simplified trees, and compacted blocks of color that activate his landscapes and backgrounds. Aspects of these influences stem from the 1914 German Expressionist Blau Reiter movement. Its leader
Wassily Kandinsky emphasized bright colors, abstract landscapes, and horse rider motifs as purveyors of spiritual values in art. “The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul, so it can weigh colors in its own scale and thus become a determinant in artistic creation.”5 Thompson’s small painting on wood Red Cross (1959) shows many of these spiritualized and expressive ideas: the compression of color blocks and tree shapes that make up the landscape with a horse and rider figure on the left and an attenuated female figure on the right. Red Cross represents a simple but effective modernist use of abstraction becoming an expressive spiritualized space.
Thompson’s encounter with the work of the Spanish artist Francisco Goya, specifically his Los Caprichios from 1797–98, seems to herald the eruption of demons and monsters in scenes of violence, struggle, and depravity. Goya’s emotionally charged apocalyptic visions seem to unleash Thompson’s ability to articulate what was irrational and unspeakable, exposing the dark social tensions surrounding the issues of sex and race. The pastoral mood of Thompson’s sometime peaceable kingdom is ruptured by violence caused by dark, aberrant forces. In Tree (1962), a twisted mound of yellow, white, pink and brown bodies fight in mortal battle, accompanied by beasts from above and below. Fangs, claws, and teeth come out. Turmoil and cruelty reign. In The Struggle (1963), a determined mob grasps the body of a woman trying to separate her from a male figure struggling under the weight of a heavy slab. Untitled (Tree Lift) (1962), based on Goya’s etching And Still they Will Not Go! (1799), has
the same male figure lifting a massive tree trunk with ghoulish figures looking on. His formerly faceless figures now wear shocked, haunted, and grimacing expressions. One of Thompson’s most spontaneous and expressively brushed works, The Hanging (1959), overtly depicts the crime of lynching—directly naming the source of racist cruelty and terror.
Thompson confessed “The monster was very much of a monster and yet I want to make him gentle.”6 The terrifying creature in Black Monster (1959) attacking two light skinned women carrying a dark man seems to symbolize the conjurings of the white supremacist taboo against the sexual violation of the color barrier and the chaos of social tensions it produced in the mind of Jim Crow dominated society. This tension was a reality in Thompson’s personal life. “It was in 1959 at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village that Thompson met Carol Plenda, a white woman whom he married in 1960, seven years before the Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court decision ended prohibitions on interracial marriage.”7 Fighting monsters and beasts symbolizes a confrontational dare against his sexual crossing of the color line and the violent emotions it caused within racist American society.
“Punishment for interracial desire is an American tradition that Thompson was certainly aware of. The lynching of black men in particular was often justified by claims of sexual activity with white women (frequently declared by murderers as a reason).”8
The 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, based on the false accusation of whistling at a white woman, lays bare this paranoia. This adds a special layer of meaning to Thompson’s St. George and the Dragon paintings, where a dark-skinned horse rider seeks to slay the dragon symbolizing white supremacist terror—a force that condemns blackness and imprisons white female sexual expression. In one 1963 version, a black-hatted figure reaches to embrace his light skinned female partner as two beasts attack the couple trying to tear them apart from both sides.
The final room in the exhibit shows works that highlight friends and artists who supported and inspired Thompson. Stairway to the Stars (1962) portrays the beat poet Alan Ginsberg and fellow artists Walter Gutman and Red Grooms. Garden of Music (1960) depicts jazz musicians Ronnie Coleman, Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ed Blackwell, and Charlie Hayden playing on their instruments. There is the more realistic portrait of the mixed-race couple of LeRoi Jones and his wife Hettie with their two children. LeRoi was particularly close to Thompson. “He was a great painter, a fantastic emotionalist… He had a great influence on us. And his conception of painting knocked me out.”9 Yet even in this room of supportive artists and friends, there never seems to be a happy or contented face. In Garden of Music and the painting Balling (1960), figures hide behind trees, peering out with fear and unease similar to the fear, unease, and melancholic inwardness on the faces of his portraits. The unhappiness of his faces may well explain the mystery of his faceless silhouetted figures in his better known works—a way to hide the depression and fear that haunted him throughout his life.
Thompson embodies an artist who developed his own particular modernist idiom while also being a very rare example of the expressionist and figurative tendencies found in the works of Lawrence, Bearden, and Müller. From the late 1950s through the 1960s, very few American painters explored expressive figuration at the risk of jeopardizing successful careers when Abstract Expressionism was the dominant trend. Those who did not accommodate the doctrine of abstract purity promoted by the powerful art critic Clement Greenberg suffered sharp words under his withering gaze. Willem de Kooning’s Woman paintings are a rare example of figurative expressionist work that survived his disapproval.
Another reason Thompson and Müller paid the price of obscurity is based on how the American cultural mind is influenced by a kind of historical Puritanism which is uncomfortable with the emotional and erotic needs of the physical body. The Puritanical mind sought to control what it saw as the dangerous power of eros, instincts, and emotions. It demanded the split of the mind and soul from the body, whose needs were suppressed and denied. This same dogma runs deep in the American white supremacist fear that inflicted dehumanization and control over Black people, their human and civil rights, and the fear of Eros as a powerful force that could violate the taboo of crossing the color line. Contemporary post-modern art continues this trajectory of “Puritanization” by forcing the human figure to become conceptualized,
technologized, or erased altogether by the kind of Neo-Formalist abstraction that is endlessly promoted by popular art magazines. By contrast, Thompson and Müller chose a path to authenticity through figurative expressionism, using it to plumb the emotional ordeal of a self that confronted difficult social and political injustices in life. Both resisted the “Purifying” reduction of expressionism to Action Painting, which emphasized the physical act of painting as “an event”10 rather than a vehicle to express the human soul and spirit.
Thompson lived a tragically short life succumbing at only 28 to a long-time heroin addiction following medical surgery. Fortunately today, there is a strong resurgence of interest in historically important black artists and how they affect the current generation. The impact of the social realist artist Charles White on his student Kerry James Marshall is a good case in point. It is invigorating to finally examine the expressionist side of Thompson’s work through an in-depth museum retrospective, giving fresh eyes to the conflict of anti-black racism that still haunts America to this day. This timely and scholarly exhibition gives deep insight into Thompson's esoteric figurative expressionism and the complex stories that evolve within the rhythmic landscapes of his restless imagination.
Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. She is a Pollack Krasner Grant Recipient who exhibits internationally. Her work is in the collections of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the National Hellenic Museum, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the Block Museum at Northwestern University, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum among many others. For more information visit dianethodos.com.
“Bob Thompson: This House is Mine” is on view through May 15, 2022, at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., Chicago, IL 60637.
1. Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Incredible Forgotten Life of Bob Thompson. newartsmia.org.
2. Müller as quoted in “Airless Despair,” Time, February 2, 1962.
3. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 1963.
4. Dody Müller, “Jan Müller’s Life,” Jan Müller, 1922–1958 exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1962).
5. Wassily Kandinsky, The Spiritual in Abstract Art.
6. Bob Thompson quote, exhibition wall text for Black Monster (1959), Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, IL, “Bob Thomson: This House is Mine.”
7. Crystal N. Feimster, Black Monster and the Hanging, Bob Thompson: This House is Mine, Yale University Press 2021, p. 116.
8. Bridget R. Cooks, Dark Figures, Bob Thompson: This House is Mine, Yale University Press 2021, p. 95.
9. Leroi Jones quote, exhibition wall text for Portrait of Leroi Jones and his family, 1964, Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, IL, "Bob Thompson: This House is Mine."
10. Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters," The Tradition of the New, Da Capo Press, 1994, p. 25.