WATERVILLE, Maine — Bob Thompson, who died in 1966, just 28, registers only as a footnote in the canon of American art. No more than two steps into “This House Is Mine,” a new exhibition at the Colby College Museum of Art surveying the painter’s brief, blazingly original career, I knotted up with frustration at how this could possibly be so. Across from the title wall hangs “Blue Madonna,” an upended devotional that redraws Renaissance convention with unique pictorial verve — figures reduced to bright silhouette, scene fractured in waves of color and form. It’s captivating, complex, and undeniably great. It’s also testament to how easily even powerful work can end up tucked away in history’s back pages.
There are reasons for that, none of them good, and we’ll get to that soon enough. But for a moment, let’s just savor what Colby curator Diana Tuite has given us: more than 80 pieces from an electric-charged body of work, both rooted in tradition and joyously iconoclastic, that remakes old stories in breathtaking new ways.
Thompson was a one-man revolution, throwing himself against the static notion of a Western canon and the rising orthodoxy of his day. “I cannot find a place nor category in which to put my paintings nor a name to call them,” he said in 1959, just 21, living in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., his painting life barely begun. His work still defies category, and that’s at least partly why he teeters on the edge of forgotten.
That’s also why this show, deep and full and comprehensive, is such a thrill: It feels transgressive, a concentrated dose of something illicit. Eruptive and impassioned, Thompson’s work contains multitudes, leaving no convention undisturbed. It explodes narrow boundaries and leaves you wondering — really, truly wondering — why they were ever there in the first place.
About those boundaries: Thompson started working in the late 1950s, when Abstract Expressionism, America’s first homegrown art movement, was at its peak. That left him, a figurative expressionist enthralled by the old masters, outside the dominant art-world conversation. And, Thompson was Black, with a vision for carving out space for himself in a centuries-old realm that was willfully, almost exclusively white. His paintings were everything but: His work is peopled with folks of every imaginable hue, from indigo to fuchsia to chartreuse and aubergine, a literal rainbow coalition. Despite being largely overlooked by an increasingly academic art world, Thompson found his way; his work sold well to private collectors captivated by his vision, and maybe as nonplussed by the art world’s tightening priorities as the artist himself. (His work is now in many major museums, though rarely shown over the years since his death.)
When he died, Thompson had been on an extended sojourn in Rome to work amid the Renaissance masterworks he so adored; he struggled with heroin addiction and finally succumbed to it. He was wildly prolific during his short career. In less than a decade, Thompson produced about 1,000 pieces, both small and magnificently large. “This House Is Mine” exults in the latter — big, bold canvases, radiant with primary colors, that remake canonic standards as vividly joyous revenge fantasies — but includes the former, too. The show’s title comes from just such a work — tiny, but bristling with import. A postcard-size scene of enigmatic figures in a shadowy glade, the piece stakes a claim on hallowed and exclusive ground: In this age-old realm of narrative painting, Thompson was building a place of his own.
Thompson loved the old masters, but he didn’t revere them; for him, their work was there to be subverted. His take on Tintoretto’s “Saint George and the Dragon” is no homage. Thompson remade Tintoretto’s work as compositionally identical but wildly different. Flattening his figures into fields of color — the dragon, green; the princess, yellow; Saint George, ochre — he took ownership of an old Christian standard and made it thoroughly contemporary.
Thompson could really pick a fight. His short career bridged Abstract Expressionism in the late ′50s as it shifted from radical movement to establishment commodity — I’ll never forget the scene in “Mad Men” when the partners at Sterling Cooper puzzle over the brand-new Mark Rothko in Bert Cooper’s office — and the rise of Conceptual Art in the early ′60s.
In his own work, Thompson outwardly rejected both dominant strains of his time, though I like to think of him as at least distant kin to Conceptualism, with its sly subversiveness and antiestablishment verve. But “This House Is Mine” also positions him in that significant cultural moment. In New York, he was at Allan Kaprow’s “happenings” — performance-based rallying points in Conceptualism’s early days — and knew Allen Ginsberg (a small portrait is included here). He was also an habitué of the New York jazz scene and a close friend of the free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, who inspired at least one work, the dizzying “Ornette,” from 1960-61.
When he painted, though, he was all on his own. The big themes that had captivated artists for centuries — life and death, good and evil, gods and mortals — drove his work, as did his fascination with the artists themselves. I was enthralled to see Thompson’s miniature take on Titian’s “Perseus and Andromeda,” composed of rough gestural swipes, and his multiple deconstructions of the works of Nicolas Poussin, with whom he shared a pastoral vision, if not a palette.
Poussin’s subdued hues wither next to the wild radiance of the Thompsons that follow them: “Homage to Nina Simone,” made in 1965 after Thompson crossed paths with the iconic singer in Provincetown, is a take on Poussin’s “Bacchanal with Lute-Player” with the volume cranked to 11. Simone, like Thompson, loved European culture and was eager to carve her place in it. All riotous color and ebullient brushwork, the piece is the artist at his most robust, an unrepentant claiming of space. The only artist Thompson seemed in tune with was Francisco Goya, to whose grotesque “Los Caprichos” he returned time and again. The series, which satirized the vanities of 18th-century Spanish society, prompted Thompson to be his most hauntingly visceral: “Tree,” from 1962, is a carnival of subhuman depravity; “The Circus,” 1963, is brightly violent and bleak.
“This House Is Mine” isn’t the first Thompson survey; the Whitney Museum of American Art brought dozens of his works to New York City in 1998, though there’s been nothing significant since. But where the Whitney was expository, resurrecting Thompson from obscurity, the Colby show is deep in reference and motivation, giving him due as an established master. Beautifully presented, it makes clear that Thompson didn’t seek communion with forebears like Poussin as much as level ground. He grappled with European standards — the show includes small oil sketches where he messes with early Modern artists such as Édouard Manet, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas — and revealed vital intent. Coopting their compositions and remaking them in his own spare and gutsy style was both a rejection and an embrace — of the idea that Black artists had no place in the canon, and of the canon itself.
Thompson, painting at the height of the civil rights era, could be blunt. Lynching appears more than once: in “The Hanging,” 1959, bleak and cryptic, with sparse forest veiling, though not completely, the violent act; and in “The Execution,” 1961, in which a dark figure dangles from a branch while another brandishes a machete.
“Black Monster,” made shortly after Thompson left Louisville for New York in 1959, is a grim allegory for dangerous white stereotypes of Black male sexual appetite. Four years earlier, Emmett Till, just 14, was murdered in Mississippi over a false accusation of grabbing and threatening a white woman. Mack Charles Parker was killed by a white mob over an alleged rape in Mississippi just months before Thompson arrived in New York.
Thompson, whose wife, Carol, was white, “understood the dangers of sex across the color line,” writes Crystal N. Feimster, a professor of African American Studies at Yale, and an expert on race- and gender-based violence, in the exhibition catalog. His “Black Monster,” 1959, with women cowering before a creature that’s little more than a shadow of rage, feels like an explosion of a very personal fury.
Born in Louisville in 1937 to middle-class parents — his family owned a restaurant — Thompson moved as an infant to Elizabethtown, Ky., where his father opened a dry-cleaning business, according to the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, which represents his estate. The move would be alienating. In Elizabethtown, Thompson’s parents forbade him and his older sisters from associating with Black children who were poor and working class.
Isolated, the family became a close internal unit, shattered when Thompson’s father died in a car accident. Thompson, 13, spiraled into depression; his mother, wanting to provide him the community he had always lacked, sent him back to Louisville to live with one of his older sisters. Thompson became a top student at a prestigious Black high school, and in 1955 he was accepted into the premed program at Boston University. Alone in that unfamiliar place, depression returned; he went back to Kentucky and changed course, studying art at the University of Louisville.
In 1956, Abstract Expressionism dominated New York; further afield, it was still strange and exotic. John Frank, an artist who had studied with Robert Motherwell, was teaching in Louisville that semester, preaching the AbEx orthodoxy. Thompson learned from him that Provincetown, a summer hotbed of the burgeoning scene, was the place to be, and so, in 1958, Thompson went. As a student at the Seong Moy School of Painting and Graphic Arts there, he connected with other figurative painters, including Red Grooms and Christopher Lane, and watched from across the bar as stars like Franz Kline held court with young abstraction acolytes.
Thompson learned there what he didn’t want and, by contrast, what he did. His work was in remaking stories — seminal, foundational, age-old stories — to include those, like him, left out. His life cut short, that work had only just begun. Had he lived, how different would our own story be?
BOB THOMPSON: THIS HOUSE IS MINE
Through Jan. 9, Colby College Museum of Art, 5600 Mayflower Hill, Waterville, Maine. 207-859-5600, colby.edu/museum
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.