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 Bob (Robert Louis) Thompson  (1937 - 1966)

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Lived/Active: Kentucky/New York/Massachusetts / Italy      Known for: figurative expressionist, religion

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Bob (Robert Louis) Thompson
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
An African-American, Bob Thompson had success in the 1960s as an artist, which was unusual for black artists of that era and led to his becoming a pivotal figure for African-American artists and for art historians.  However, his life was cut short when he died in Rome in 1966 just before his twenty-ninth birthday. 

Thompson was a modernist who adapted Paul Gauguin's Fauvist use of interlocking planes of bright colors.  He often used Biblical subjects, and created an effect of idealized, faceless figures.  Among his paintings were Flagellation of Christ and St. George and the Dragon.

Living among avant-garde artists in New York City, where he briefly had a studio on Rivington Street, and in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he was at odds with the prevalent Pop and Op art style of the time.  He was also rebellious in that he declined to fill the traditional black- artist role of doing narrative, genre work about black life in America, nor was he willing to do pure abstraction, which was being touted as an expression of universal experience.

Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Thompson had a year of frustrating pre-med studies at Boston University from 1955 to 1956, and then returned to Louisville and began art studies at the University of Louisville.   In 1958, he went to Provincetown, Massachusetts where he was influenced to move from abstraction to more figurative art.  There he associated with figurative expressionists Lester Johnson, Red Grooms, Mimi Gross and Gandy Brodie.

In 1959, he moved to New York's Lower East Side and participated in group shows and single gallery exhibitions.  In 1961, he first went to Europe, traveling in Rome, Madrid and Paris, and he returned in 1963.   He also became a regular part of the downtown painters' and musicians' scene in New York.

In 1998, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his figurative abstract work.  Joseph Hirshorn donated 15 of Thompson's works to the Hirshorn Museum.


Source:
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art

Biography from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (Artworks Wanted):
Perhaps as well known for the brevity of his life as for the vibrancy of his paintings, 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,” (ii) 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, who 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. He completed high school in Louisville, living with his sister and her husband. In the 1950s, the city was still largely segregated, 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 to study medicine, but in 1957, he left Boston and transferred into the art program at the University of Louisville, where Robert Gwathmey was a graduate student in fine art. (iii)

Thompson spent the summer of 1958 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he 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.’” (iv)  Although the artist who inspired them, Jan Müller, died before Thompson could meet him, 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.” (v) 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 decaying tenement building on the Lower East Side, not far from where Benny Andrews lived at the same time.

Thompson’s unwavering energy—something friends and family frequently mention in recollections—was matched only by that of the city. He met and befriended Amiri Baraka (then, LeRoi Jones) as well as leading artists and writers of the Beat generation. He also he 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 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 Francesco de Goya, another of Thompson’s key influences), as well as birds, horses, and hats. 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 an 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. In 1962, a grant from the Whitney Opportunity Fellowship gave them the funds to leave Paris for Ibiza. Thompson’s trip to Europe afforded him the opportunity to study first-hand the masterworks that formed the traditional art historical canon. In Paris, he visited the Louvre almost daily to sketch. (vi)

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.” (vii) In 1964, he had solo exhibitions at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago and at Paula Cooper’s gallery in New York, after which Joseph Hirshhorn purchased a number of his paintings. Thompson had a second exhibition with Martha Jackson in 1965, which supposedly brought an unprecedented amount of viewers to the gallery. (viii)  Thompson left New York at the height of his success and spent the summer in Provincetown. In 1966, he went to Rome, where he died shortly after having gall bladder surgery, and most likely due to complications from his long-term, severe heroin addiction. In a brief life that included only eight years of painting, Thompson left a complex body of work that has proven to be of great significance and influence to successive generations of artists and art historians. (ix)

Bob Thompson’s extraordinary paintings, gouaches, and drawings are included in museum collections nation-wide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; Art Institute of Chicago; Detroit Institute of Arts Museum; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; New Orleans Museum of Art; Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina; and Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut. In 1998, the Whitney Museum of American Art organized a major traveling retrospective exhibition, featuring over one hundred of Thompson’s paintings and accompanied by a catalogue. Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is the exclusive representative of the Estate of Bob Thompson, and since 1996 the gallery has presented three solo exhibitions, publishing catalogues for each.

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, S-Z):
The early death of Bob Thompson shortened a career that in merely eight years managed to create a lasting impression on the art world. Blending tradition and innovation into a highly personal visionary style, Thompson always pursued an individualist course, one that resulted in expressive figural works that told centuries-old stories for a new generation.

As a young African-American artist in New York City, Thompson took advantage of his vibrant surroundings, befriending celebrated jazz musicians, noted art historians, and Beat poets alike. From his frequent visits to museums, the artist drew inspiration from the past, and sought to reinvigorate classical subjects and compositions. In doing so, Thompson made traditional themes relevant to a modern audience, reinterpreting motifs such as the Madonna and child to make them signify in a new context. His friend, the art historian Meyer Schapiro elucidated the artist’s relationship to the long tradition of art:

“Bob knew the paintings of the old masters and studied them constantly in reproductions and in the museums. He aspired to serene classic art like Piero della Francesca’s and Raphael’s, with large clearly balanced forms. He wished to embody in a grand noble style, but with intense colors, an imagery all his own and rooted in a poetic fantasy that looked exotic yet was native to him as an American Negro. His death was a great loss to the art of this country.” (1)

Born in Lousiville, Kentucky, Thompson lived a middle-class life in Kentucky. He graduated from high school and matriculated at Boston University temporarily. He subsequently relocated to the University of Louisville, where he pursued a course in art. In the summer of 1958, he traveled to Provincetown, where he encountered many of the artists who would later become his friends and peers in New York. Art historian Judith Wilson describes Thompson’s Provincetown summer as an eye-opening event for the young artist, a time that encouraged his “heady mix of imagery, techniques, and themes borrowed from contemporary artists. It was the start of his self-insertion into art history through the appropriation and reworking of choice bits of his predecessors’ styles.”(2)

Following a one-man show at the Arts in Louisville Gallery in late 1959, the young artist moved to New York. Settling on the Lower East Side, the artist secured his first Manhattan exhibition at the Delancey Street Museum. That year he also married Carol Plenda. With his friend, musician Jackie McLean, Thompson proved instrumental in the founding of Slugs, the infamous New York jazz club; in particular, the artist created posters to promote the new club. In 1961, Thompson received a Whitney Foundation fellowship, and he traveled to London aboard the Queen Elizabeth. Later the same year the Thompson moved to Paris, where they lived for a year. This sojourn was immensely inspirational for the artist. After having spent years examining European painting in books, the artist was finally able to see the old masters’ works in person. He and his wife then moved to Spain, where they set up home in Ibiza until 1963.

When Thompson returned to New York in 1963, his art underwent a decisive shift. His paintings from 1958 through 1962 often contained multiple figural groupings sometimes rendered in more muted colors and earth tones. In 1963, he simplified his compositions to focus on a single central action or event and adopted an even brighter chromatic range. As his narrative sensibility developed, he increasingly rendered his figures and landscapes with greater emotional expressiveness. He also incorporated traditional iconography and sources into his imagination, producing visionary works.

During this period, he received a number of solo exhibitions in New York—at Martha Jackson Gallery, Paula Johnson (now Paula Cooper) Gallery—and at Richard Gray in Chicago and Donald Morris in Detroit. He was also included in several group shows, and from 1963 onward, his work began to be actively acquired by private and public collections, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Denver Art Museum, the Newark Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1965, Thompson returned to Provincetown, where the artist had spent the summer at the start of his career. Later that year, Thompson and his wife departed for Rome, where the artist continued to paint while studying the Italian Renaissance masterworks around him. Yet his vivacity for life caught up with him; although his doctors urged him to take care recovering from a gall bladder operation, the artist continued his high energy, unrestrained lifestyle, which lead to his untimely death in 1966.

(1) Printed in "Bob Thompson: Heroes, Martyrs, and Spectres," exh. cat. (New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 1997), 3.
(2) Judith Wilson, “Garden of Music,” in "Bob Thompson," exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999), 43.

© Copyright 2008 Hollis Taggart Galleries

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
In his brief but prolific career, Bob Thompson rejected traditional expectations of the African American artist to create narrative genre scenes descriptive of black life in the United States. He was equally uninterested in pure abstraction as a means of expressing universal experiences, a common objective of modern artists. Instead, Thompson followed the examples of Romare Bearden and Sam Gilliam in his exploration of aesthetic, rather than sociopolitical, issues. Often described as a figurative abstractionist, Thompson’s simplification of forms and manipulation of color to convey emotional intensity has inspired comparisons with Gauguin’s Fauvist style.

Thompson developed an interest in the arts as a teenager growing up in a middle-class family in Louisville, Kentucky. When Thompson’s father was killed in a car accident in 1950, the thirteen-year-old was sent to live with his sister and her husband, Robert Holmes. A painter, Holmes cultivated young Thompson’s artistic inclinations, offering guidance and encouragement. Following graduation from an academically rigorous all-black high school in 1955, Thompson enrolled as a pre-medicine student at Boston University. He quickly realized, however, that painting—not science—was his true passion and transferred to an art program at the University of Louisville. During these years, Thompson’s early abstractionist style gave way to a more figural approach, a shift the artist credited to a summer spent in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1958. There, Thompson met a group of emerging artists—including Red Grooms, Emilio Cruz, and Gandy Brodie—who, in contradiction to prevailing New York trends, embraced the figural in their work. Deeply influenced by these artistic rebels, Thompson likewise modified his own style.

Thompson relocated to New York City in 1959, where he encountered an artistic atmosphere that matched his own boundless energy and appetites. He settled in a dilapidated tenement building on the Lower East Side near Benny Andrews' residence and became a regular at at the Five Spot, a local jazz café frequented by artists and writers. These creative forces helped Thompson refine his signature mature style. By appropriating and adapting the compositions of European masters, Thompson transformed familiar scenes—now modernized by faceless forms rendered in deep, vibrant colors—into exuberant contemporary allegories. The colorful and symbolic intensity of his paintings captivated viewers when they were exhibited in 1960, first at the Delancey Museum and later at Zabriskie Gallery.

On the heels of these exhibitions, Thompson won a series of notable awards which financed travels through Europe from 1961 to 1963, including extended studies in Paris and Spain. Upon his return to New York in 1963, Thompson was welcomed with a series of solo exhibitions at various galleries in both New York and Chicago, attracting the patronage of influential private collectors such as Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. and Joseph H. Hirshhorn. Public collections have since followed suit, and the artist’s works are today represented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Art Institute in Chicago, and Detroit Institute of Art. Tragically, Thompson died shortly before his twenty-ninth birthday and so did not live to see the impact of his career on the American art scene. His oeuvre continues to command attention and, in 1998, was the focus of a Whitney Museum traveling exhibition of over one hundred works.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
www.thejohnsoncollection.org

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Bob Thompson is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Black American Artists
Fauves/Fauvism

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