Bob Thompson, Garden of Music, 1960, oil on canvas, 6' 5 1⁄2" × 11' 11".

Bob Thompson, Garden of Music, 1960, oil on canvas, 6' 5 1⁄2" × 11' 11".

Bob Thompson

In 1958, a young Bob Thompson (1937–1966) committed to canvas a moment from a recent funeral service he had not attended. The work paid tribute to German émigré Jan Müller, who had passed away just before Thompson encountered his enigmatic paintings of rough-hewn figures during a stay in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the summer of that year. The Funeral of Jan Müller, 1958, lacks the vivid palette the artist would go on to develop, but the somber cemetery scene rendered with thick brushstrokes in earnest homage to Müller affords insight into Thompson’s brewing sense of figuration’s expressive potential, something he would expertly mine during his all-too-short career.

The canvas provides a fitting introduction to “This House Is Mine,” a reconsideration of Thompson’s work at the Colby College Museum of Art, curated by Diana Tuite, that will travel nationally. As a Black artist who made figurative paintings unaligned with most major currents of 1960s art, Thompson has posthumously been subject to overlapping forms of marginalization. (For instance, in his 1969 essay “Discussion on Black Art,” Frank Bowling vented frustration that no one could direct him to a show of the artist’s work at Manhattan’s New School the previous year.) Before this show at the Colby, two decades had passed since Thompson’s last major exhibition, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Drawing on the extensive body of work Thompson produced between 1958 and 1966, when complications following a surgery brought on an early death, the presentation here allows his output the in-depth assessment it deserves.

At the outset of the 1960s, Thompson would begin laying claim to European masterworks, lifting compositions from pieces observed in reproduction and in the flesh during extended stays in Paris and Rome. This exhibition performs a distinct service in robustly contextualizing that practice, so that the particularity of Thompson’s engagement with the Western canon comes forward. Rarely seen early works from 1958 to 1960 in the exhibition’s upper galleries reveal how thoroughly suffused by menace Thompson’s painterly vision was from the start. Responding both to Müller and to other Expressionists at the Hite Art Institute at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, the artist developed his own iconography of threat, along with techniques for delivering it to the nervous system. In his pictures of enclosed forest settings, female bodies lurch across shallow foregrounds, while shadowy characters with wide-brimmed hats lurk just behind. In Balling, 1960, humanoids in muddy red and green lumber through a clearing flooded with unnatural beige light, carrying spheres for undisclosed ends. The artist broaches the horrors of American racism across several canvases, such as Black Monster and The Hanging. Both paintings were made in 1959, the year Mack Charles Parker was murdered by a lynch mob after being accused of raping a pregnant white woman. Yet even these tableaux are permeated by an unyielding ambiguity: a potential refusal, as the show’s wall texts note, of the burdens of representation customarily imposed on minority artists.

Paintings in the exhibition’s lower galleries underline the intimate connection Thompson’s high-keyed 1960s paintings shared with jazz. Canvases twinning likenesses of Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman with rhythmic sequences of color and experimental kaleidoscopic structures point to the artist’s search for a visual language that could parallel this music’s expressive power. Eventually, the paintings that borrowed from canonical artworks became the site of that pursuit, which Thompson adumbrated with his darker impulses. Take The Carriage, 1965: The orderly composition of Nicolas Poussin’s painting Autumn, or The Spies with the Grapes of the Promised Land, 1660–64, becomes a vehicle for a nerve-jangling picture in which passages of indigo and mustard yellow jostle and hum, pierced by two blazing figures, one orange and one red, who carry on a pole not grapes, as Poussin’s returning Israelites do, but a slackly hanging body. Repudiating the authority vested within the pictures that served as his point of departure, Thompson imparted to them a ringing unease that announced his own talent. To paraphrase art historian Judith Wilson writing in the Whitney’s exhibition catalogue of 1998, why speculate on the future of Thompson’s work had he lived longer? His visceral paintings that attest to richer histories of American art from the 1960s are more than enough. What is needed, now and going forward, is for these powerful images to be widely seen.