Bob Thompson (1936-1966)
This small-scale painting by the African American artist Bob Thompson demands to be noticed. The bold forms and thickly applied Expressionistic color blend to create a visually vibrant work. The contrast of the fairly naturalistic scenery with the green, pink, yellow, and red figures produces a surreal, exotic environment. The artist’s novel use of and understanding of color is typical of the style of Figurative Expressionism, in which realistic images and colors are manipulated to convey intense emotion. Unlike many of Thompson’s other untitled works, many of which reference famous historical events, religious narratives, myths, or other well-known works of art, the ambiguous nature of this scene allows the viewer to analyze the artist’s intention to convey feeling rather than narrative.
Although Thompson was African American, many of his works, including this one, created in 1961, do not seem to deal explicitly with race. Similar to the abstract paintings by Beauford Delaney and Romare Bearden, Thompson’s untitled piece is not preoccupied with the political but instead with the aesthetic. It thus joins the other work in this exhibition in the debate on what constitutes the category of “black art”—a work’s content or the artist’s personal identity?
Common motifs in Thompson’s work include the use of nightmares or fantasies and the battle between good and evil. Much like many of Thompson’s allegorical and religious works, the action in the foreground is placed in relation to a “great beyond” that the figures look to in the distance—in this case, the unknown destination of the river prominently featured in the piece. To the far left, a black figure wearing a hat points to the scene and witnesses the action from the sidelines. Some art historians have interpreted this figure, which appears in many of Thompson’s works, as an autobiographical marker.
During a seven-year career, cut short by his premature death from heroin abuse in 1966, Thompson produced over one thousand works of art. He first became involved in the arts as a Boston University student when he used art therapy as a remedy for his depression. He soon realized that art was his true calling and launched his solo career in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York City. In 1961, Thompson received a grant to tour Europe and study classical European and Renaissance art, which highly influenced the style and content of his future work. Untitled was completed during his time in Paris and is a testament to his development of a unique style. As Thompson’s skill matured, his use of color intensified, his imagery became more figurative in nature, and he appropriated imagery from European art focused on mortality, religion, and sexuality. The theme of nudes frolicking across a timeless, idyllic landscape is a familiar one in the history of art and, with this painting, Thompson could have been alluding to any number of famous works from the Renaissance to the modern periods. By reinterpreting famous paintings and making them his own, Thompson was able to claim his own place in the art history world and cast his highly individual and satirical eye on society.
For further reading:
Art Institute of Chicago, Selections from the Art Institute of Chicago: African Americans in Art. The Art Institute of Chicago. Museum Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2. (1999). Print.
Golden, Thelma. Bob Thompson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Print.
Patton, Sharon. African American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
Powell, Richard J. Black Art & Culture in the 20th Century. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997. Print.
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