However reductive it may be to call the painter Bob Thompson the Jean-Michel Basquiat of the 1960s, the comparison is inescapable.
Thompson is the subject of the current retrospective, “This House Is Mine,” at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, and like Basquiat he was a Black artist who quickly developed a recognizable signature style that blossomed in a gritty, mainly white, Lower Manhattan bohemia. Like Basquiat, Thompson was deeply into music and drawn to musicians. And like Basquiat, Thompson died young, leaving a body of work by turns cryptic and accessible. Basquiat was an art-world phenom anointed by Andy Warhol, and so prolific that he was thought to be suffering from burnout when he overdosed on heroin at 27. Thompson, although never as celebrated, was also a hot young artist—his last one-man show in New York broke attendance records at the Martha Jackson Gallery, then a vanguard uptown venue—and then, just short of 29, he died from an overdose in Rome in 1966.
Both painters have had posthumous careers, but by the time of Basquiat’s 1993 retrospective at the Whitney Museum, which confirmed his international blue-chip status, and Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat, which made him a candidate for the hipster pantheon, Thompson had largely been forgotten, regarded primarily as a Beat Generation relic, representing a time before the art world, as embodied by Basquiat, was fully and outrageously monetized. Thompson was marginalized as a quasi-underground Black culture hero: his 1998 show at the Whitney was less an art-world event than a family gathering, albeit, as Manthia Diawara wrote of its opening in Artforum, “a bit like a Harlem Renaissance black-tie gala.”
The show at Colby College (later traveling to museums in Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles) is, among other remarkable qualities, the first museum exhibition dedicated to Thompson in over twenty years. At least as far as can be extrapolated from its virtual representation, “This House Is Mine” is an explosion of flat, primary colors, or rather, color shards. The shapes in Thompson’s madly chromatic paintings tend to be snugly fitted in the manner of a jigsaw puzzle. This effect is accentuated by the fact that, to save money, many of his early pieces were painted on wood. The 1960 oil on board that gives the exhibit its title is nearly abstract, yet one amorphous form can be read as a dark-haired white woman, and another as an ominous black man with a blue dog. Above, two legs dangle from a tree’s yellow leaves. Which house is whose?
As enigmatic as they are, his paintings are still being rediscovered and still remarkably fresh. Thompson is not easily classified, though he was essentially a figurative artist. His brief New York Times obituary cautiously described him as a “surrealist.” At once static and riotous, decorative and theatrical, his paintings are personal allegories often set in Edenic landscapes of rolling hills and lollipop trees, populated by nude human figures and animals, as well as an assortment of mythological creatures such as harpies, angels, dragons, biblical characters and avatars of the Egyptian dog god Anubis. It is, as one mad scientist says to another in The Bride of Frankenstein, a “new world of gods and monsters.”
By all accounts, Thompson worked quickly when he painted and drew naturally on his unconscious, but his patterns don’t take much work to tease out. Birds loom large. Women often have no facial features but are identified by a triangular patch of pubic hair. The inhabitants of his cosmos are yellow, red, blue, brown and sometimes pink. More poignant than menacing, Thompson’s monsters are usually black.
Made by a Black artist in a predominantly white art world, Thompson’s paintings are a bacchanal of brightly hued human figures—the opposite of color-blind. One way to think of his work is as an imagined multiracial universe—although this rainbow coalition is not necessarily peaceful, charged as it is with an intermittently violent erotic pantheism. Everything in his art is potentially mutable, so it’s not a stretch to say that Thompson could have illustrated Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
One of his most beautiful paintings, Tree (1962), is his most brutal—full of biomorphic rapes and violations. A fierce red-haired angel in a dark blue bustier brandishes an uprooted tree, staring balefully at the creatures below, among them a bright yellow humanoid emerging from (or becoming) an orange lizard and an amorphous white entity of indeterminate gender threatened by a brown reptile while being penetrated by an orange silhouette. Tucked into the canvas’s upper right corner and excluded from the gaily patterned mayhem, one of Thompson’s trademark monsters does what might be a dance of futility.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1937 (five years before local hero Cassius Clay), the son of a successful businessman and a trained schoolteacher, Thompson attended but never finished college, although he did study art for several years at the University of Louisville. His most influential instructors were German refugees and exponents of Expressionism; evident early influences include Franz Marc and the Fauves.
In 1958, Thompson arrived in New York City by way of Provincetown’s bohemian art colony. Squatting or living in a succession of cold-water Lower East Side lofts, he hung out with other young painters, most famously the exuberant “ruckus” artist Red Grooms, a son of Louisville’s sister city Nashville. Most of his acquaintances were junior members of the New York School’s figurative wing represented by Lester Johnson and Larry Rivers.
Thompson was particularly impressed by the painter Jan Müller, a German refugee from fascism and student of Hans Hofmann, who died in Provincetown in 1958 not long before Thompson arrived. Sometimes described as a “medieval” expressionist, Müller inspired something of a cult. Thompson joined up with his ambitious Funeral of Jan Müller, painted on a large piece of Masonite, inscribing himself into an event he could not have attended and perhaps suggesting himself as Müller’s heir, as the young Bob Dylan positioned himself in relation to Woody Guthrie.
Like many of Thompson’s early works, Funeral is somberly monochromatic and inherently death-haunted. Paintings like Untitled (figures and horse in a landscape) and The Hanging, both done in 1959, evoke the grim violence of American history, suggesting tableaux from gothic Westerns. Also from 1959, The Stab and Black Monster (in which a voracious entity approaches a trio than includes two dancing white women) are as allegorical as their titles suggest. If never absent from Thompson’s work, racial anxiety is rarely so overt. Although The Execution, painted in 1961 as the civil rights movement gathered momentum, clearly depicts a lynching, the image also draws inspiration from classical sources. The composition is based on Fra Angelico’s Beheading of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian: a man floats in the center of the frame above the mangled bodies of other victims, while a crowd gathers to watch the executioner draw his sword.
Thompson had his first New York show in 1960 at Red Grooms’s ironically named Delancey Street Museum, a third-floor walk-up that had once been a boxing gym, located on the shabby Lower East Side boulevard leading to the Williamsburg Bridge. Grooms first met Thompson in Provincetown and was an admiring peer: “Bob’s show was full of masterpieces, he was painting them daily at that time.” (Not the fledgling pop artist Andy Warhol but the distinguished art historian Meyer Schapiro purchased one.)
Around the time that Thompson turned to a primary-color palette, he participated in several of the avant-garde theater pieces, aka “happenings,” that were performed at Grooms’s gallery. In The Burning Building he played the Doorman in white clown makeup, stationed on Delancey to hustle up an audience. In another happening, as Grooms recalled, Thompson “created the illusion of a passing landscape, pushing the baby carriage [full of discarded Christmas trees found on the street] while doing a ‘moon walk’ past the cardboard locomotive.” Thompson also painted a wall during Allen Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts and played drums for A Garden, a happening staged in the Delancey Street Museum by the painter Marcia Marcus.
In the downtown art world, Thompson was a dramatic presence. An undated Grooms sketch shows him hunched forward in what looks like an uncomfortably low chair, his entire rangy frame concentrated on making art. The poet LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), who first encountered Thompson at the fabled Abstract Expressionist hangout the Cedar Bar, where they would have been among the few Black regulars (and where Thompson met his wife Carol Plenda, who was white), remembered him as “a big husky, homely dude with hair standing up all over his head.” Jones’s buddy, the poet A. B. Spellman, put a more avant-garde spin on Thompson’s appearance, suggesting that he pioneered the Afro and “anticipated dreadlocks.”
By all accounts, Thompson emanated self-confidence. Remarking on his trademark porkpie hat, a style associated with jazz great Lester Young, the writer Hettie Jones, then married to LeRoi Jones, wrote that “after Lester Young, you had to be pretty sure of yourself to wear a porkpie.” But Thompson’s bravado came at a cost. Like more than a few of the musicians he revered, Thompson coped with the stress of his situation—the existential dilemma of being an avant-garde artist compounded by the existential complication of being an African American avant-garde artist in a white art world—by developing a heroin habit.
Both Hettie and LeRoi Jones wrote about Thompson in their memoirs. Hettie, who devotes some space to Thompson’s 1960 wedding and marriage (mixed-race like hers), describes Thompson the artist: “I’d watched him paint; he worked fast, sure-handed, as if forcing the issue of representation. Bob put race and sex in his paintings, and his own round, dark face—on the body of a large, insistent-looking bird and under the porkpie hat he always wore.” Her husband has less to say about the paintings. While acknowledging Thompson’s “way-out mind,” he pays more attention to his drug problem. “Mainly at Bob’s urging,” the pair were “always putting in ‘bag time’ walking around looking for dope.” According to Jones, he was usually just snorting “scag,” whereas Thompson was shooting it.
Jones, who was three years older than Thompson and a member of the avant-garde poetry establishment, might have struck Thompson as a role model or a sellout, or both. The complexity of Thompson’s feelings about Jones can only be guessed from his 1964 portrait “LeRoi Jones and his Family,” in which, arrayed according to height, the poet appears buttoned-down and gazing straight ahead, expressionless, while his wife, her face partially concealed behind large glasses, stares stonily sideways. Were it not for the presence of their two young daughters in blurry motion, the painting might be a seventeenth-century portrait of a prosperous Dutch burgher and his dour wife.
Like Jones, Thompson was a member of two avant-gardes—not just the young figurative painters of the New York School but the venturesome artists of New Thing jazz, first written about by the Black poets, Jones and Spellman. Thompson’s Clinton Street loft was a gathering place for musicians as well as artists and writers. There is a suggestion that he saw himself as a sort of musician as well. A somewhat wasted-looking self-portrait from 1960 shows him seated, shirtless, staring down, a snare drum and a conga prominently beside him.
In 1961, the financier Walter Gutman—the angel behind the quintessential Beat movie Pull My Daisy—funded Thompson’s first trip to Europe, and a grant from the John Hay Whitney Foundation allowed him to extend his stay in Paris, where the critic Barbara Rose remembers running into him almost daily at the Louvre. In France and on a subsequent trip to Italy, Thompson broadened his style, riffing on Renaissance masterpieces. These were not parodies but a form of appropriation or reanimating—classic compositions repopulated by multihued cutouts and silhouettes to create tight, blazing abstractions. Titian’s stormy, unbalanced Perseus and Andromeda is rendered harmonious in Thompson’s gouache reworking, Untitled (1964).
Many of Thompson’s late paintings, like La Caprice (1963), were inspired by Goya’s Los Caprichos. Cheerful yet horrendous, these simultaneously simplify (or erase) and revivify classic art. The Milky Way (1964) is a zippy, streamlined riff on Tintoretto’s visually bombastic The Origin of the Milky Way. Triumph of Bacchus and The Indian Triumph of Bacchus (after Poussin), both painted in 1964, add a host of fabulous beasts to the color-charged revels. The bold but stately Judgement of Paris (1964) flips and simplifies Lucas Cranach’s version, then complicates the composition with the presence of a relatively naturalistic horse at the edge of the picture. Thompson was still working through these ideas when he died. One of his last paintings was Homage to Nina Simone (1965), based on Poussin’s pastoral Bacchanal with a Guitarist. These canvases are, to invoke Kafka, descriptions of the struggle by which he sought to force his way into the canon, to sit in, as it were, with the masters.
Thompson had paraphrased Jones’s message to him in the poem “5 Themes for Robert Thompson” as “get your head out of that dead, stale cave of Italians, and be a spade.” Jones—who, according to his onetime colleague and lover, the poet Diane di Prima, had once aspired to becoming “the Black Ezra Pound”—may have been talking to himself. For Thompson’s bold flattening, tight rhythmic rejiggering and generally joyful enlivening of Renaissance painting might well be considered, contra Jones, quintessentially his own.
The jazz critic Stanley Crouch first heard of Thompson on the classic Archie Shepp record Mama Too Tight (1967), which opens with “A Portrait of Robert Thompson (as a young man),” one of the several pieces heard on a loop in the Colby show.
Crouch subsequently encountered one of Thompson’s paintings—a terrific one, La Caprice, reversed on the cover of Steve Lacey’s 1967 LP The Forest and the Zoo. After moving to Manhattan in the mid-1970s, Crouch began seeing small Thompson paintings in the Lower East Side lofts and apartments of friends. Deeply impressed, he eventually wrote what appears to be practically the first published in-depth analysis of the artist—a long article published in 1986 in the December 2nd issue of the Village Voice titled “Meteor in a Black Hat,” pegged to nothing more than the twentieth anniversary of Thompson’s death.
The piece is highly personal. Acutely aware of racial politics in the East Village, Crouch identifies strongly with the artist and offers some powerful insights into his work. Since the turn of the twentieth century, European modernists had derived inspiration and energy from so-called primitive art; Thompson reversed the process, placing, as Crouch put it, “his own work next to that of the masters he loved most, encouraging comparison with the greatest painters of all time. Classical paintings were his song forms, the ‘standards’ on which he improvised his identity … only instead of elevating pop tunes he asserted himself through recognized classics.”
Crouch nailed the jazz connection, and Ornette (1960-61), Thompson’s portrait of the seminal free jazz musician Ornette Coleman, functions as a sort of artistic manifesto. An atypical Thompson composition, it suggests a large, elaborate mandala in which, occupying the center of the canvas, Coleman is shown in multiple perspective—frontal, left and right profiles, and overhead. His face is framed by a colorful circle, a swirl of female figures, said to represent the notes or sounds of a solo. It is possible that Thompson understood the music not as an invitation to spontaneity but rather as a form of existential creation—like painting, particularly in the pre-Warhol era before career paths and commodification were evident.
Stuart Davis, one of the most fluid, insouciant and visually melodious of American modernist painters, is often described as “jazzy.” Thompson wasn’t jazzy, he was jazz. His paintings literally made the scene. The punningly titled Bird Party (1961) is a large, festive canvas in which pink women dance with multicolored avian creatures beside an alpine lake, hung behind the bandstand in the legendary Lower East Side jazz club, Slugs’. The mural-sized Garden of Music (1960), considered by some to be Thompson’s early masterpiece, certainly his most familiar painting, places recognizable versions of Coleman, Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Haden, all of whom played at the Five Spot, decorously posed naked in a typically idyllic Thompson landscape.
The size of the painting is a statement. So too the subject, as well as the serene, timeless quality. The feeling is at once celestial and down to earth. The setting suggests a Candyland vision of the West African savanna. Garden of Music is reproduced on the cover of Scott Saul’s account of sixties jazz, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t, and described within as “a jam session in the Garden of Eden.” Thompson’s late work was like a jam session in the Louvre: placing “primitive” roots in a dialectical relation to avant-garde “sophistication.” His paintings make the archaic new, and the new archaic.
A quarter of a century before Basquiat became the star of New York’s avant-garde, bending the art world to his vision, Thompson had every reason to wonder if his bold appropriation of the old masters would ever receive its due, or if it was a fool’s errand. This is the drama that underscores his work. Whether or not it will finally get resolved with “This House Is Mine,” the exhibition offers a welcome opportunity to encounter his genius anew.
Art credit: Bob Thompson, Bird Party, 1961. Collection of the Rhythm Trust. © Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York.