Biography

Recognized for the vibrancy of the numerous paintings he created in his brief life, Robert Louis (Bob) Thompson was born in 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky to middle-class parents who owned a small restaurant. When Thompson was less than a year old, his family moved to Elizabethtown, where his father opened a dry cleaning business. The move took the family away from “the close-knit social matrices of the urban black bourgeoisie,”[3] and Thompson’s father strongly discouraged his children from associating with the lower-income black children around them. As a result, Thompson and his sisters spent much of their childhood without close friends. Thompson grew up very close to his father and was devastated when he was killed suddenly in a car accident when the artist was thirteen. Soon after, Thompson contracted mumps, which led to encephalitis, which in turn put him in a coma for three days. Although he recovered, Thompson was left with severe headaches for several years afterwards. Thompson’s parents believed strongly in the value of education and expected their children to go to college. In 1950, Thompson moved back to Louisville to live with his sister Cecile and her husband, Robert Holmes, who worked as a cartographer. Thompson had felt at ease with Holmes, an artist, since meeting him at the age of nine, and when he was younger, Thompson would often bring him drawings he had created. Louisville was a segregated city, and Thompson attended an academically rigorous, all-black high school that included African American history in its curriculum. He graduated in 1955 and enrolled in Boston University, living in Cambridge with his sister Phyllis, her husband, and their baby. Thompson intended to study medicine, but in 1956, with low grades and a lack of interest, he left Boston and transferred into the art program at the University of Louisville, where Robert Gwathmey was a graduate student in fine art.[4]

 

The faculty at Louisville included a large number of German refugees, and their interest in expressionism had a profound impact on Thompson. In 1958, he encountered the work of another German refugee, the recently deceased Jan Müller, when he spent the summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Although Müller had died months before Thompson got to the Cape, he did meet Dody Müller, Jan’s widow and also an artist, who told him, “Don't ever look for your solutions from contemporaries—look at Old Masters.”[5] Thompson felt so strong an affinity with Müller that he created a sizeable oil-on-masonite work, The Funeral of Jan Müller, to mourn the man he had never met and whose funeral he had not attended. That same summer, Thompson also met and befriended a group of artists who were taking a divergent path from that of the New York School painters, including Emilio Cruz and Gandy Brodie. These artists, as Peter Schjeldahl writes, “embraced a peculiar vision of art history…The Provincetown look was an esthetically conservative, emotionally insurgent revival of late-19th-century, Gauguin-esque Symbolism. Its matter and manner announced the artists as a community of untrammeled, funky seers who all but breathed paint. Fanciful but not fatuous in imagery, its best products recall a famous statement of Maurice Denis in 1890: ‘Remember that a picture—before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote—is essentially a plane surface coated with colors assembled in a certain order.’”[6] At the end of the summer, Thompson returned to Louisville briefly, but soon left the city and school for good and headed to New York, eventually settling into a cold-water flat in a decaying tenement building on the Lower East Side, not far from where Benny Andrews lived at the same time.

 

In addition to an aesthetic sensibility and a life cut short, Thompson shared with Müller an unwavering energy, which was matched only by that of New York. In the city, he met and befriended Amiri Baraka (then, LeRoi Jones) as well as leading artists and writers of the Beat generation. He also participated in Happenings organized by Allan Kaprow and Red Grooms. A lover of jazz, Thompson was a regular at the Five Spot, a jazz club frequented by New York artists and writers, where legendary talents like Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Charlie Haden played. It was also in New York that Thompson quickly arrived at his mature style, taking Dody Müller’s advice to heart by reworking the compositions of European Masters such as Piero della Francesca, Nicolas Poussin, and Jacopo Tintoretto into simplified, abstracted forms painted in threatening and seductive tones that were hot and violent or deep and dark—seizing on the dynamism of these classical scenes and often transforming them into contemporary allegorical nightmares. In these paintings as well as what he called his “original” compositions, Thompson developed his own symbolic lexicon, which featured monstrous creatures emerging from the shadows (reminiscent of the paintings of Francisco de Goya, another of Thompson’s key influences), as well as birds, horses, and silhouetted men in hats—possible manifestations of the artist’s spiritual and physical existence. He created these sensual works in the monumental size of abstract expressionism and the intimate scale of predella panels. Bold, emotional, visceral, yet disciplined, Thompson’s paintings impressed artists and collectors alike. In less than a year after his arrival to the city, this audacious young painter had his first solo exhibition at the Delancey Street Museum, followed by a two-person show at the prestigious Zabriskie Gallery.

 

At the end of 1960, Thompson married Carol Plenda, and a grant from the Walter Gutman Foundation in 1961 enabled the couple to travel to Europe, where they lived in low-rent artists’ housing without heat or hot water for nearly a year. Thompson’s trip to Europe enabled him to study first-hand the masterworks that formed the traditional art historical canon. In Paris, he visited the Louvre almost daily to sketch.[7] In 1962, a grant from the Whitney Opportunity Fellowship gave them the funds to leave Paris for the island of Ibiza. They settled in the city of Ibiza, where the cost of living was exceptionally low and there was a large international community. The Thompsons soon became famous for their hospitality, welcoming friends and strangers into their home, feeding them, and hosting parties and happenings.

 

Bob and Carol Thompson returned to New York in 1963, renting an apartment on the Lower East Side, not far from the studio of friend and fellow artist Lester Johnson, who helped Thompson get a one-man show at Martha Jackson’s gallery that same year. The show received favorable reviews, and, as Judith Wilson writes, “in rapid succession, mainstream art-world doors began opening to the twenty-six-year-old artist.”[8] In 1964, he had solo exhibitions at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago and at Paula Cooper’s gallery in New York, after which collector Joseph Hirshhorn purchased a number of his paintings. On the recommendation of Lester Johnson, Thompson was included in Yale University’s influential Seven Young Painters exhibition that same year. He had a second solo exhibition with Martha Jackson in 1965, which brought an unprecedented amount of viewers to the gallery.[9] Thompson left New York at the height of his success and spent the summer in Provincetown. In 1966, he went to Rome, where he required gall bladder surgery. Advised to rest after the operation, Thompson continued at his characteristically vivacious pace, and he died a few months after his surgery. In 1967, St. Mark’s Gallery in New York held a memorial exhibition of his work.

 

Since his death, Thompson’s work has been shown in a number of notable solo exhibitions. In 1969, a retrospective was held at the New School Art Center in New York, followed by a memorial exhibition at the Speed Art Museum, Louisville in 1971. Subsequent solo exhibitions were held at the University Art Gallery of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (1974); the National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC (1975) and The Studio Museum in Harlem in New York (1978). In 1998, the Whitney Museum of American Art organized a major traveling retrospective exhibition, featuring over one hundred of Thompson’s paintings with an accompanying catalogue by Thelma Golden. In 2012, the Hite Art Institute of the University of Louisville mounted Seeking Bob Thompson: Dialogue/Object. Since 1996, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery has presented four solo exhibitions of the artist’s work, publishing catalogues for three. Most recently, the gallery presented Naked at the Edge: Bob Thompson in 2015.

 

In recent years, Thompson’s work has also been exhibited regularly in group exhibitions worldwide, including Il Secolo del Jazz: Arte, Cinema, Musica e Fotografia da Picasso a Basquiat (The Jazz Century: Art, Cinema, Music and Photography from Picasso to Basquiat) at the Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rovereto, Italy, which traveled to the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris France and the Centre de Cultura Contemporània in Barcelona, Spain (2009); Blues for Smoke at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, CA, which traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art and Wexner Center for the Arts of the Ohio State University in Columbus, OH (2012); Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, which traveled to the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH and the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX (2014); Beat Generation at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France (2016); and The Color Line: African American Artists and Segregation at the Musée du Quai Branly (2016). This year alone, Thompson’s work was featured in Visionary Painting: Curated by Alex Katz at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, ME; Regarding the Figure at The Studio Museum in Harlem and Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965, previously at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and now on view at the school’s gallery in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. His work is also part of the major exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, recently at the Tate Modern, London, England, and soon to be on view at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR, and the Brooklyn Museum.

 

In a brief life that included only eight years of full-time painting, Thompson created a complex body of work that has proven to be of great significance and influence to successive generations of artists and art historians.[10] Bob Thompson’s extraordinary paintings, gouaches, and drawings are included in museum collections nationwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL); Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, NY); Chrysler Museum of Art (Norfolk, VA); Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, AR); Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, MI); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC); The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY); Minneapolis Institute of Art (Minneapolis, MN); Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, IL); Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA); Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); Nasher Museum of Art,  Duke University (Durham, NC); National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); New Orleans Museum of Art (New Orleans, LA); Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, PA); Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, DC); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York, NY); Speed Art Museum (Louisville, KY); The Studio Museum in Harlem (New York, NY); Tougaloo Art Collections, Tougaloo College (Tougaloo, MS); Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (Hartford, CT); and Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY).