In a review of a 1998 Bob Thompson retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith lauded the painter’s “raw talent and unquenchable ambition.” But, she wrote: “Too many of these paintings are unresolved and indifferently painted. Their figures and colors jangle rather than jell, side-stepping the sense of rightness or inevitability basic to ‘great.’ ”

Over 20 years later, Colby College’s current Thompson survey, “This House is Mine” (through Jan. 9), gave me the chance to test this view, one with which I find I could not disagree more. Thompson was a man with demons and substance abuse issues who painted so feverishly that in less than a decade before he died, just shy of 29, he produced some 1,000 works.

Are they all great? Of course not. But the fact that many of them aren’t tied up with a neat bow and don’t display a “sense of rightness” is exactly what makes them powerful and at times, yes, even great. Irresolution, in fact, was Thompson’s reality, and you’d be hard-pressed to find more poignant or powerful expressions of this anxious state of being in art history.

Violence and eroticism – sometimes a combination of both – comprise a discomfiting undercurrent throughout the show. Thompson was a Black man painting in the tumultuous racial atmosphere of the 1960s, so it is not surprising to see paintings of lynchings, such as “The Hanging” and “The Execution.”

The latter is particularly brutal, showing not only a Black figure dangling from a tree, but also three kneeling figures who have been beheaded. Who they are, what their offense was and what their race is remain unclear, which hints at Thompson’s much larger objectives.

He was no polemicist, consciously eschewing overtly “Black” art. Which is not to say he shied away from these issues either. In quite a few paintings, nubile women are threatened by large black monsters, likely a reference to the predatory, oversexualized white view of Black maleness.

Bob Thompson, “The Execution,” 1961. Oil on linen. Courtesy of Ellen Phelan and Joel Shapiro

But in paintings like “Execution” he points to the more pervasive and persistent issue of cruelty and injustice as endemic to our nature. We see this in the way Thompson adapts famous Old Master paintings to his own ends.

His “Untitled (After Poussin)” reproduces the two men of the classical Baroque painter’s “Autumn, or a Bunch of Grapes Taken from the Promised Land,” who carry a wooden pole between them. But whereas in the 1660 work the pole is laden with the title’s fruit, in Thompson’s, the pole is being used to transport the carcass of a man.

Thompson made his own versions of many Old Master paintings that depicted mythological and religious subjects. In some, like “Perseus and Andromeda,” the correlations to the original (in this case Titian) are direct and obvious.

But in many others, he tweaked the themes provocatively to convey darker messages about the human condition. By viewing these through the prism of mythological and religious imagery, Thompson intimates that cruelty and injustice have afflicted us since antiquity and are karmically inescapable. Everything boils down to the perpetual struggle between good and evil.

Among his classical references were Piero della Francesca, Lucas Cranach, Tintoretto, Titian, Francisco Goya and Nicholas Poussin. Yet he interprets them using a modern pictorial language, figural treatment and color palette derived from the French Fauves and, at times – though it is not mentioned in the wall plaques – the German Blue Rider painters (particularly Franz Marc’s horses and August Macke’s featureless faces). There are also hints, albeit more brooding ones, of Matisse. And, of course, Thompson was greatly influenced by the modern quasi-primitive style of Jan Muller, whose work he came across early in his career.

His ability to synthesize so many artistic periods and genres is no small achievement, even if his modern means can feel rough and coarse at times. Figures in Thompson’s paintings are not always clear, appearing part human, part animal.

But rather than see this as evidence that paintings were quickly dashed off or, as Smith asserted, “indifferently painted,” I couldn’t help thinking of this rawness as a deliberate allusion to, and manifestation of, the painter’s interior state of turmoil and irresolution. The paintings are way too charged to be “indifferent” in any way. Thompson’s work feels literate and refined, yet also unfiltered and agonized.

Bob Thompson, “This House Is Mine,” 1960. Oil on board. 7 × 12 in. Collection of Robin and Gary Jacobs. © Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York. Photo by Elon Schoenholz

In some works, like the show’s title painting, “This House is Mine,” we feel Thompson’s sense of isolation. The painting depicts a shadowy figure in a hat in the background and a female figure in the foreground. It immediately reminded me of Paul Gauguin’s “Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin,” in which the French post-Impressionist depicted himself as a societal outsider.

In the 1888 painting, Gauguin wears a cap and a mournful expression. The woman in the foreground seems to have just shut the gate between them to keep him at bay. Gauguin felt misunderstood and underappreciated in France. Three years after he executed this work, he exiled himself to Tahiti. The remarkable similarity to Gauguin’s composition and slightly removed, capped and coated silhouette makes Thompson’s all-black figure feel autobiographical.

Not all of Thompson’s art is tortured and difficult. His homages to jazz greats – among them Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Haden – feel celebratory in paintings such as “Garden of Music.” And religious works such as “Nativity Scene,” a long narrow canvas in which the Christ child is laid out upon a blue horse, are sublimely beautiful and reverential, with a lushness of color that could keep you glued to the canvas for hours.

Bob Thompson, “Nativity Scene,” n.d. Oil on canvas mounted to panel. Abrams Family Collection

Another painting, “Blue Madonna,” is a hybrid of a religious scene and visualized music. The Virgin and Child occupy the right side of the picture plane. The middle is taken up by figures moving behind and between a series of trees. The trees break up the plane in an almost cubist fashion, confusing surface with depth. As our eyes move left to right, colors emerge and recede, as do the people, creating a visual rhythm that echoes the syncopations of jazz.

There is so much to see here and so much variety that it can feel overwhelming. The show takes up two floors, and with all the blaring colors, themes that are both ecstatic and nightmarish, the abundance of art historical references, the confrontational quality of many large canvases, the myths, allegories and apologues … it requires a lot of time and concentration to get through.

The show’s too-muchness is probably best handled in multiple return visits. But the overabundance also serves to emphasize our inability to pigeonhole Thompson or his art.

The artist himself realized that he had a uniquely idiosyncratic voice, once telling the Louisville Gazette: “I cannot find a place nor category in which to put my paintings nor a name to call them.”

His fearlessness and commitment in themselves suggest a greatness of vision. To my mind, Thompson’s ambitiousness and singular imagination resulted in a number of paintings that would easily qualify as “great.”

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


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