When Bob Thompson (1937–1966) died in Rome at the age of 28, he had been painting for eight years. During that time, he completed more than 1,000 paintings. Few artists since his death have had a similar outpouring and, not surprisingly, almost none of them have sustained it for more than a decade. I can think of only two painters in the last 50 years who accomplished so much in such an abbreviated period: Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) and Matthew Wong (1984–2019). What connects these very different artists is not their biography, however, but the feeling of separateness they inventively expressed in their work. 

Thompson told his hometown newspaper, the Louisville Gazette: “I cannot find a place nor category in which to put my paintings nor a name to call them.” His refusal to categorize or identify his work strikes this viewer as being an act of defiance, and much more. It signals, as his paintings and drawings bear out, a desire to define his own path, rather than align himself with Pop Art, Minimalism, Color Field painting, and Painterly Realism — tendencies emerging in the late 1950s, about the time he arrived in New York.  

A Black man born in Louisville, Kentucky, during segregation, Thompson’s desire for artistic independence is one of his greatest gifts to future generations of artists, no matter their color, gender, or sexuality. It is a gift that cannot be separated from his opaque figurative paintings populated by featureless silhouettes of humans and animals, depicted in saturated colors and inhabiting an Arcadian landscape. This world seldom comments directly on the legacy of segregation, but never ignores it. Groups of featureless figures are rarely the same color in a Thompson painting, but they are not always hostile to each other — a vision that anticipates Nicole Eisenman’s celebratory 1990s paintings of Brooklyn beer gardens. 

Of all the artists associated with American Figurative Expressionism, which largely flourished between 1954 and 1966, and has its roots in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Thompson has emerged as the standout. He is the great painter of the group and his work foreshadows artists as diverse as Judith Linhares, Joyce Pensato, and Dana Schutz.

Bob Thompson, “Fearful Insider #2” (1958), oil on Masonite, 60 x 48 inches (courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY, © Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY)

A decade ago, an important exhibition, Pioneers From Provincetown: The Roots of Figurative Expressionism, at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (July 19–September 2, 2013), curated by Adam Zucker, featured four paintings by Thompson, along with work by Jan Müller (1922–1958), Gandy Brodie, Red Grooms, Lester Johnson, Emilio Cruz, Mimi Gross, Robert DeNiro Sr., Wolf Kahn, and George Segal. No artist had more than four paintings and Thompson was the youngest to be included. In the press release, Zucker wrote: 

The Figurative Expressionists’ rebellion against the abstract authority in Provincetown during the late 1950’s illustrates one of the most exciting moments in modern American art history.

Although comprised mostly of artists who lived and worked in New York, this city has long overlooked this important group of loosely associated figurative artists. By doing so, it also ignores the open and accepting society of Provincetown, with its racially diverse community and long history as a gay resort. Traveling by bus from Louisville to Provincetown in 1958, in the hope of meeting Müller, who died at the beginning of that year, Thompson stepped into a different world. Difference was something to which he was deeply attuned.

Thompson is the subject of two concurrent solo exhibitions in New York: Bob Thompson: So let us all be citizens at 52 Walker, curated by Ebony L. Haynes, and Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. The shows offer viewers an opportunity to experience the range of this restless, artistically ambitious, challenging Black artist, whose career lasted less than a decade. 

Together, the two shows comprise more than 30 paintings done during every period of Thompson’s short career, along with 11 works on paper (the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery show also includes notebooks, letters, and photographs). If we begin with “Fearful Insider #2” (1958) and the pastel drawing “Self-Portrait” (c. 1958–59), and then consider what changes in “Black Monster” (1959) and “Le Poignarder (the Stab)” (1959) (all at Michael Rosenfeld), after he gets to Provincetown and New York, we can see how quickly and smoothly he moves away from realism, while absorbing and transforming the motif of the anonymous, behatted city dweller from Lester Johnson. Rather than appearing derivative or appropriative, Thompson seems supremely confident. He is sure that he can make something with which he engages into his own, and he is not wrong. 

Bob Thompson, “Self-Portrait” (c. 1958–59), pastel on paper, 17 5/8 x 11 3/4 inches (courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY, © Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY)

Although Thompson never met Müller, he was deeply affected by the older artist’s paintings of an Arcadian world inhabited by mythic figures. Writing about Müller in Art News (January 1958), John Ashbery stated that he “brings a medieval sensibility to neo-Expressionist paintings.” Thompson’s Arcadian world is an eerie place, rife with violent struggle, emotionally in tune with the times. One important person he befriended was Dody Müller, Jan’s widow, who, in an oft-repeated story, told him to not “ever look for your solutions from contemporaries — look at Old Masters.” While still in Louisville, Thompson began copying reproductions of works by Old Masters that he saw in art books. Dody Müller’s advice affirmed Thompson’s pursuit of the allegorical and otherworldly. 

One significant change that Thompson made in the first years he engaged with Müller’s work, before he and his wife, Carol, made their initial trip to Europe in 1961, was to remove his figures’ facial features. Their anonymity shifted the work from the emphasis on types in medieval art to the anonymous masses that have become synonymous with modernity, which was further enhanced by the artist’s bold use of color. I believe one reason that Thompson was attracted to Müller was because he regarded him as a rebel who refused to accept the artistic conventions of the day, such as pure abstraction or de Kooning’s figuration. 

Despite befriending writers and musicians such as Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones (later, Amiri Baraka), and Ornette Coleman, Thompson knew that he would never fit in with the status quo and he refused to try. Like his friends, he wanted to be taken on his own terms. This is what his work makes clear: rather than feeling like a “fearful insider,” he wanted to author a world where the struggle between chaos and order, structure and impulse, the rational and irrational, and the historical legacy he inherited as a Black man born in the South, is never settled. His interest in Italian Renaissance paintings enabled him to both distance himself from this situation and face his personal demons. 

Bob Thompson, “An Allegory” (1964), oil on canvas, 47 3/4 x 47 3/4 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Thomas Bellinger (© Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY)

In “An Allegory” (1964), on view at 52 Walker and in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Thompson envisions an utterly mysterious world. Typically, an allegory is used to illustrate complex concepts that contain a moral, often about love or greed. Thompson’s paintings are full of symbols that resist a reductive reading.

Compositionally, “An Allegory” is like a stage set. The foreground is occupied by two dark blue horses pulling an open cart — really a platform with wheels — on which five people sit: four brightly colored, featureless nudes at the front and one figure at the back, grasping a large, flapping bird by its legs. One figure, on the side of the cart, faces toward the viewer, as if to acknowledge our presence. Another holds a tree with a broken trunk. The tree appears to be growing from the landscape just behind the cart; however, the red figure’s hand grasps the trunk from behind, while the lower part of the trunk lies diagonally on the figure’s lap, suggesting it occupies two different spaces.

This formal ambiguity invites the viewer’s scrutiny as to what else is going on in the painting, and raises the question of the relationship between the human inhabitants and the natural world. Is the relationship harmonious or disruptive or both? What do the two birds signify? A standing slate-blue bird seen in profile is at the back of the wagon, towering over the seated figure. Is the bird real or ornamental? What does the combination of man and captured bird represent? Just as we are pulled in by the saturated color, receding landscape, and varied brushwork, we are likely equally stumped by the scene. That balance, nearly impossible to achieve, is where Thompson holds my attention and confirms his genius. And while he does not do this in every work, he does it more than once, and he is never less than interesting. 

The other sign of his painterly brilliance is the way he restages his encounters with Old Master paintings. “The Execution” (1961) was done shortly after Thompson went to Paris for the first time, and saw “Fra Angelico’s Beheading of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian” (1438–40), at the Louvre, a place he visited daily. 

Bob Thompson, “The Execution” (1961), oil on linen, 7 1/4 x 10 1/2 inches. Private Collection (© Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY)

While Thompson’s composition mirrors Fra Angelico’s, his changes are significant, starting with the transformation of Angelico’s figural group on the painting’s left into monochromatic silhouettes, each distinguished by a specific color. The kneeling, blindfolded saint has been raised into the air, a blindfolded body, painted black and hanging from a black tree. The executioner is about to behead him, like the others lying on the ground around him.

Except for the black figure, all the silhouettes are painted a different color, including red, olive green, and violet. At a time when the United States largely represented itself as comprised of two races, Thompson knew this was not the case. Are the figures on the left bystanders, an approving audience, or possibly the next group to be executed? The planes of color compress the space, while the circus reds, umbers, and greens add a disconcerting note that approaches cheerfulness. What is the allegorical intention of this painting of anonymous figures? 

There is a lot to unpack and puzzle over in Thompson’s paintings. Between the late 1950s and late ’60s, when the art world was moving in a more literal direction and content was being expelled, Thompson went the opposite way, in order to address a wide range of subjects and issues, including the legacy of slavery, racial oppression, bacchanalian dreams, and sexual desire, without becoming topical. He was not interested in headlines or personality, nor in pure abstraction. He pursued the allegorical and symbolic. Around 1967, a year after he died, Philip Guston underwent a radical transformation and began moving into a similar territory that allowed him to tell stories. Perhaps the art world should pay more attention to this lineage, the one where imagination, art history, the history of terror, and what the poet William Butler Yeats called “a terrible beauty” are not considered beyond painting’s grasp. 

Installation view of Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY, 2023. Left to right: “John Ore” (c. 1961), felt-tip pen on paper, 13 1/2 x 10 3/4 inches; “Sonny Rollins and Bob Cranshaw at the Five Spot” (c. 1964–65), felt-tip pen on paper, 14 x 11 inches; “Jazz Drummer” (c. 1964–65), felt-tip pen on paper, 13 1/2 x 11 1/4 inches (courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY)
Bob Thompson, “Le Poignarder (The Stab)” (1959), oil on canvas, 49 3/4 x 59 3/4 inches (courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY, © Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY)

Bob Thompson: So let us all be citizens continues at 52 Walker (52 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through July 8. The exhibition was curated by Ebony L. Haynes.

Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy continues at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (100 11th Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 26. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

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