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PILGRIMAGE

In 1950s Provincetown, a Black painter arrived to re-invent art history

Bob Thompson's "Homage to Nina Simone," painted in 1965.
Bob Thompson's "Homage to Nina Simone," painted in 1965.Bob Thompson/© Estate of Bob Thompson, Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

PROVINCETOWN — Bob Thompson’s brief, blazing career lasted just eight years, bookended by summers in Provincetown. But oh, what summers they were. The first, in 1958, was spent in a tiny cabin secured for him by proxy, as accommodations for Black men were hard come by, even in this burgeoning liberal nirvana. The last, in 1965, was in the company of the great Nina Simone, already a legend, as Thompson was en route to becoming himself.

Less than a year later, Thompson was dead at 28. He overdosed on heroin in Rome, his final destination, where the Renaissance masters he so adored were around every corner. He left behind more than a thousand paintings, and a vexing tease of what might have been.

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Nothing about Thompson fits the mold of American art at midcentury. In an era dominated by abstraction, he painted narrative scenes of eternal struggles between good and evil, life and death. And Thompson was Black, a rarity in an art world where whiteness was taken for granted. Abstract Expressionism, the lingua franca of American Modernism, was a rarefied club, to the exclusion of nearly all else and the impoverishment of culture as a whole. Left out were Black abstract painters like Norman Lewis and Alma Thomas, whose recognition came mostly in hindsight. Thompson was a unique case: A Black painter in love with the epic sweep of classical myth and history — uncategorizable in an era where categories became tightly defined. Now is not then; history is a broader tale, widening all the time. When you crack it open, all kinds of color and life come flooding in. Thompson’s story is one of many left to the margins, but what a story it is.

He was born in 1937 to an entrepreneurial family ensconced in the Black middle class of Louisville, Ky. — they owned a successful restaurant — though their son would never come to know it. When he was a year old, the family moved to Elizabethtown, N.J., where they opened a dry cleaning business, and where they found little of the Black bourgeois culture they knew back home. Thompson and his older sister would grow up in solitude, forbidden by their parents from associating with poor and working-class Black children.

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Bob Thompson and his wife, Carol, on the beach in Provincetown in the 1960s.
Bob Thompson and his wife, Carol, on the beach in Provincetown in the 1960s.Unknown/Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

It led Thompson to become intensely close with his parents, especially his father. When he was 13, his small world imploded: His father died in a car accident while on a delivery, driving him into a profound depression. Thompson’s mother, worried about her son’s mental state, sent him back to Louisville to live with his older sister and husband. She expected her children to go to college, and was intent on Bob becoming a doctor. But the accident threatened to derail those ambitions, moving her to create distance from a childhood suddenly gone awry.

In Louisville, Thompson went to an academically-rigorous all-Black high school. After graduating in 1955, on his mother’s urging, 18-year old Thompson enrolled as a pre-med student at Boston University. Dulled and disengaged by the program, old feelings of grief and despair resurfaced. Robert Holmes, his brother-in-law, knew he had a love of drawing and encouraged it as therapy for a broken heart. Thompson moved back to Kentucky the following September and enrolled in the art program at the University of Louisville.

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It was 1956, and the American art world was dominated with names like Motherwell and Rothko, De Kooning and Pollock (who had died that August in a drunken driving accident). Abstract Expressionism was in full swing. The artist John Frank, a recent graduate of Hunter College — where Motherwell himself had taught — was in Kentucky to fill in for a sabbatical, bringing the new language along with him.

Provincetown, where Frank already spent several summers, was the place to be. The artist and teacher Hans Hofmann had been building America’s abstract painting scaffolding at schools in Provincetown and New York for years. On the urging of a professor named Mary Spencer, Thompson decided it was the place for him, too.

Bob Thompson's "Provincetown," 1959
Bob Thompson's "Provincetown," 1959Bob Thompson

In 1958, Thompson set out for the Cape, where Frank helped secure a scholarship to the Seong Moy School at 7 Brewster St. that summer. The school was less renowned than the Abstract Expressionist generator Hofmann’s school had become, but it also allowed for departures from the movement’s orthodoxy. There, Thompson was drawn to the work of Jan Müller, one of Hofmann’s breakaway students, who died just months before.

Müller’s paintings were expressive, figurative, and narrative, often exploding with color. Thompson was entranced by both the paintings and by Müller’s widow, Dody, who was struck by the young man’s talent and took him under her wing. (Thompson would paint a somber scene of Müller’s funeral, which he did not attend, in homage.) Dody, who had seen her husband break with the rising abstract tide, had a piece of advice that would resonate throughout Thompson’s career: “Don’t ever look for your solutions from contemporaries,” she told him. “Look at Old Masters.”

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That first summer in Provincetown gave Thompson community, other young artists not taken by the strictures of the abstract movement — they “believed in gestural honesty,” wrote the critic April Kingsley, but “wanted to paint something real.” He found real allies there: painters Red Grooms, Christopher Lane, Jay Milder, and another young Black artist, Emilio Cruz. Thompson’s vision — an embrace of timeless themes, viewed through a thoroughly modern frame — started to feel validated, important.

Thompson lived less than eight years past that summer, but he painted furiously and with intent. He experimented with Renaissance perspectival studies and then abandoned them, adopting the flat, sensual figuration of Paul Gauguin, the modern painter Thompson might have admired most. He infused his work with symbolism — birds, and dragons, and horses, and nymph-like figures, all part of a liberating, sometimes violent bacchanal. He became integrated with the New York free jazz scene — Ornette Coleman was a close friend — and liked to think of his takes on master paintings as aesthetic “riffs,” the old and revered shot through with the now.

Bob Thompson's "Blue Madonna," 1961.
Bob Thompson's "Blue Madonna," 1961.Bob Thompson/© Estate of Bob Thompson, Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

He borrowed promiscuously from centuries of forbears — Gauguin and Henri Matisse, Francisco Goya, Titian, and Claude Lorrain. Some of Thompson’s very best work — electric, gestural, composed with the geometric precision of Tintoretto or Nicolas Poussin — seethes with spontaneous energy, recharging the classics with visceral urgency. And, my God, they’re beautiful — just look at “Blue Madonna,” his 1961 work that reconfigures the conventional Madonna and Child motif in a way that both reveres tradition and insists on newness. The color entrances; the fluid fragmentation in the middle of the picture gives it strange, sinewy life.

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And Thompson’s pictures bleed life, maybe all the more so given how cut short his was. But that last summer in Provincetown, he was at the height of his powers and exultant in his advancing fame. He “painted incessantly and lived extravagantly,” wrote Regenia A. Perry in “Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art.” Seven years prior, he and his crew had skulked in the Provincetown bars where Franz Kline and a cohort of professors from the legendary Black Mountain College were regulars, wondering if they’d ever have their chance. Now here he was, rubbing shoulders with Simone, the jazz diva sans pareil, whose gleeful appropriation of European culture was affectionate and violent and equal to his own.

The painting he made for her stands as a monument to an artist in full command of his powers. It’s a shameless redux of Poussin’s “Bacchanal with a Lute Player,” (from around 1630), made over for Thompson’s free-flowing, increasingly unbound experience of the world: Nude men and women, their skin cobalt blue, lavender, or scorching red, luxuriating lakeside in thick idyllic splendor. It’s a scene of unbridled pleasure, loose and lyrical where Poussin’s is mannered and moody. But it’s the sky that gets me — its thick swipes of paint, clouds snaking in rough mounds of pink, yellow, and green, an unseen sun charging it with fiery brilliance. It’s like a snippet of gestural abstraction, as though Thompson is saying: sure, I can do that — but why would I when I can do this?

Less than a year later he was gone, surrounded by the history he’d barely begun to claim for his own, and remake for the now. What more might he have done? We’ll never know. But is it too much to think a young Black painter, charged with a mission to bind an idealized past to a more complex present, might have helped broaden the story of art in his own time? We don’t know that either. But, with his verve and vision, we can believe.


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte