New York

Bob Thompson

Vanderwoude Tananbaum Gallery

In these works, covering the years 1959 to 1965, Bob Thompson demonstrated how during that most culturally radical of decades, the ’60s, it was possible for a young artist to reinvest the most hallowed symbolic traditions of art with fresh significance. How? By doing what amounted to his own lyrically expressive thing. Thompson’s life was tragically brief; he died in 1966 at age 29. A visionary of a uniquely American sort, he was part of a talented circle including Red Grooms, Lester Johnson, and Larry Rivers that made up the figurative wing of the New York School. Thompson developed a style of representation reflecting his deep-seated interests in the rich allegorical legacy of Western narrative art. Not one to be overwhelmed by the weight of art history, he used his sources with deliberation, with a self-consciousness that anticipated the wave of appropriation art that sprang up in the ’80s. In building his own intriguing compositions, Thompson quoted freely from artists such as Piero della Francesca, Titian, and Goya.

Thompson’s aim was to get at essential relationships, whether between nature and people, men and women, the individual and society, or the members of a family. He made art a vehicle of feeling. He sought to bring out the emotions that were at the foundation of life’s many stories, by using a boldly simplified vocabulary and by using color and form as expressively dynamic elements. In Journey, 1962, strong sensations of peace and harmony pervade the work’s monumental surface. It is an inventive reinterpretation of the theme of nudes in the forest; harmonious planar rhythms and a balanced arrangement of high-keyed tones of red, yellow, blue, brown, and green unify the figures and ground.

Thompson’s abilities to depict the dark side of fantasy, the place of horror and dread, are very much present in Untitled, 1962, a gouache showing three female figures huddled together in a cave. One holds open the mouth of a birdlike creature; you can practically hear the scream. With Perseus and Andromeda, 1964, Thompson catches the heroism inherent in the slaying of the mythical monster or dragon. All the works seen here speak eloquently of Thompson’s range and also of the promise of his vision.

Ronny Cohen