Gallery  June 26, 2023  Howard Halle

Bob Thompson's Timeless Strokes: Navigating Identity and Tradition in Art

© Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY, Courtesy 52 Walker, New York

Bob Thompson, An Allegory, 1964, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Thomas Bellinger 72.137

During the postwar era, movements were still a thing, and midcentury New York was the place where they were being minted. It mattered which program you were getting with, and in the late 1950s that still meant Abstract Expressionism, though Pop Art and Minimalism were waiting in the wings. 

So, imagine how the work of painter Bob Thompson (1937–1966) would have fared. Figurative and focused on subjects adopted from European art history, it would have been out of place for any artist, let alone one among the few African Americans operating within a White-dominated environment.

Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Photo by Charles Rotmil

Bob Thompson in studio on Clinton Street, NYC, 1960. Bob Thompson papers, 1949–2005. 

Thompson’s art didn’t overtly reference racism in his art, though a Black artist raiding the cupboards of a racially exclusionary tradition was undoubtedly a loaded act, and he did limn bodies in hues that could be taken for skin tones other than Caucasian. 

Thompson had been born in Kentucky and grew up under Jim Crow, which undoubtedly shaped his worldview. Had he lived beyond his 28 years, it’s conceivable that he might have moved towards directly addressing race, much as his contemporaries Robert Colescott and Melvin Edwards did in the 1970s and ’80s. But then again, maybe not. As it is, the show at David Zwirner offers a look into what Thompson was up to.

With its wall painted a bottomless shade of blue, “So let us all be citizens” at 52 Walker evinces the kind of museum-quality presentation that only a mega-gallery like David Zwirner (for which this venue serves as Tribeca outpost) can mount. The proceedings are glossed with the kind of institutional sheen reserved for retrospectives, and indeed, the paintings here are all on loan from important collections, public and private—an undertaking not taken lightly considering the cost. 

Courtesy 52 Walker, New York

Installation view, Bob Thompson: So let us all be citizens, April 21–July 8, 2023, 52 Walker, New York. 

Thompson’s style was a mix of Fauvism and Folk Art, leavened with motifs borrowed from Old Masters that included Fragonard, Breughel, Titian, and Poussin. He was especially drawn to the idyllic, allegorical landscapes popular in much of Baroque and Rococo painting during the 17th and 18th centuries. Thompson however, stocked his compositions with silhouettes that voided the naturalistic figures normally gamboling through such scenes. For instance, an early effort from 1960 (literally tilted, The Gambol) depicts a riding party of ghostly apparitions making their way through the woods; the center of the composition is occupied by what appears to be a statuesque nude while a couple fornicates on horseback to the left. 

© Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY Courtesy 52 Walker, New York

Bob Thompson, Caledonia Flight, 1963 Private Collection 

All of which is rendered with a brushier touch and darker tonality than later works such as An Allegory and Triumph of Bacchus (both 1964), where contours are solidly filled in with eye-popping pigments. While the exact meaning of the former, dominated by a horse-drawn cart transporting a group of people accompanied by birds, is obscure, the latter more evidently pictures an exuberant celebration of the Greek god of wine. The real point of each work lies in their syncopated arrangement of colors, and improvisatory spirit, both of which are inspired by jazz. The same goes for Thompson’s appropriations from the aforementioned canonical artists, including his 1965 version of Fragonard’s fanciful masterpiece, The Swing. 

Thompson is having something of a moment in NYC: Concurrent with this exhibition, his longtime dealer, Michael Rosenfeld, is offering a selection of pieces, among them, several felt-tip marker portraits of jazz musicians that are, like Thompson’s canvases, exceedingly fresh.

But then, why wouldn’t they be? Today, figurative paintings by African Americans are common in galleries and museums, which wasn’t the case when Thompson was alive. Ironically, an artist who seemed so out of touch with his time was remarkably prescient.  

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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