Review: Bob Thompson’s L.A. retrospective is a must-see show

At three feet square, The Circus is not the largest painting in the deeply absorbing survey of Bob Thompson’s brief but prolific career. (He died in 1966, a month before his 29th birthday birthday.) As the newly opened survey of 50 paintings in the UCLA Hammer Museum shows, he often worked large, and sometimes almost to wall scale.

But The Circus, painted in 1963 when Thompson was living on the bohemian island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Spain, is formally mesmerizing and conceptually unsettling despite its easel size. The composition was inspired by Francisco de Goya’s well-known, politically poignant aquatint The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. As a black man raised in the American South, Thompson knew all about the irrational nature of emotions and the enormity they can create.

What he did with that knowledge is surprising.

In the painting are huge, swooping silhouettes of owl-like birds, one green and the other blue, each with wings spread wide, creatures that represent both menace and freedom. They are clutched by two muscular, slightly crouched figures, one crimson and the other bright yellow. Whether the birds or the characters are attacking or fleeing is hard to tell.

A second skirmish is also underway. Thompson’s chosen palette is dominated by flat areas of primary colors. The human and avian forms convey a vivid sense of socially and culturally recognized modernist abstraction fighting an insatiable, if unmodern, urge toward figurative painting. Thompson uses Goya, a hinge between old master and modern art, to reflect on a current artistic debate.

Below the wrestling men and birds, a small, vestigial figure crouches at a table, head bowed, like Goya’s dreaming man. In the Spanish artist’s famous 1799 etching, owls and bats swarm around the dreamer’s reclining body, nightmares staring straight ahead with intense attention focused on the viewer staring into the scene. Goya’s private, internalized fears are externalized and transformed into an intimate, slightly satirical spectacle.

Thompson does something different: his fighters act on the open stage, like in the ring. They stand between the imaginative artist in front of the door and a boisterous crowd of spectators who are rudimentarily sketched as a human wall towering in the background. A show is on.

Bob Thompson, "this house is mine" 1960, oil on board

Bob Thompson, This House is Mine, 1960, oil on board

(Collection by Robin and Gary Jacobs.)

Goya speaks to us one to one. But befitting the age of mass media, Thompson speaks to us as part of the faceless crowd — or, at worst, as a mob. The circus is an established modern metaphor for the social hilarity of life, recast as a scene greeted with queasy entertainment value rather than empathy and understanding.

Thompson, closely following his situation as a black painter in a white-dominated society, including an art world largely closed to him, but nonetheless acutely attuned to the social and cultural turmoil of the burgeoning civil rights movement of the early 1960s, presents a complex reworking of Goya’s interpretation of the grueling immorality in his Los Caprichos series of prints. “The Circus” didn’t make it into the impressive 1998 Thompson retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art – not too surprising given that almost a thousand works are known to have spanned his compact eight-year career – bringing the artist back national attention for three decades after his early death. But today, as a national reckoning of racial injustices proceeds, the painting takes on new relevance.

Organized last year by the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine is a must-see exhibition, concluding a four-city national tour. (Hammer curators Erin Christovale and Vanessa Arizmendi oversaw the installation.) The title comes from a tiny 1960 painting on board at the entrance. The “house” that the painter takes possession of is multifaceted: his identity as a person, his commitment to being an artist and, last but not least, the museum-confirmed legacy of western painting, which in recent years has been reclaimed as American heritage after the fall of the Second World War.

This “house” is mine, too, Thompson explained, regardless of who—white supremacist or black nationalist—might say otherwise. The exhibition shows what that means.

Bob Thompson, "The Judgment of Paris" 1964, oil on canvas

Bob Thompson, The Judgment of Paris, 1964, oil on canvas

(Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute)

Individual paintings show him taking possession of a multitude of Renaissance and Baroque precedents, revising and reinterpreting them, just as he did with Goya and The Circus, to create something distinctive and new. European paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Nicolas Poussin and other artists of the western canon echo in his work, which is steeped in modernist forms. (Think of Matisse and German Expressionism in particular.) Black artists from an earlier generation like Romare Bearden are also influential, along with inspiration from jazz musicians like Nina Simone and Ornette Coleman.

Western art history is overwhelmed with themes of physical violence and spiritual transcendence and finds resonance in African American life. Thompson looks them in the eye.

And he asks questions about his own life as an artist. More than once he painted “The Judgment of Paris,” the Greek backroom myth of personal insult and bribery that erupted in the epic Trojan War. An examination of cultural standards of beauty is certainly also an examination of its reception in Paris, the centuries-old artistic capital of France.

Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in the midst of the Great Depression and just months after the Ohio River famously flooded the city, reaching a staggering 40 feet and submerging more than two-thirds of it. The worst natural disaster in Louisville history undoubtedly played a role in the family’s decision to move to nearby Elizabethtown. His father, a dry cleaner, died in a car accident when Bob was 13, leaving his teacher and mother with three children.

A brief flirtation with a medical degree at Boston University was followed by a dip at the Hite Art Institute in Louisville, where he followed a youthful call. Eventually he landed in New York and settled in the bohemian neighborhoods of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side. He was 21 and avant-garde art was at a turning point. Abstract Expressionism had become the establishment and new directions emerged. He left the city for the first of two extended stays in Europe.

Two thematic moments are particularly emphasized in the Hammer exhibition. The first is for images of brutality, the second for an artist.

Crucifixions and the martyrdom of saints are fairly standard in European art history. Thompson linked the Christian image of the cross, a place of unspeakable suffering on the path to salvation, to the horrifying specter of the lynch tree.

In one particularly striking example, a character with a blood-smeared stick prepares to strike an amorphous black character hanging from a branch, hanging over shattered bodies on the ground. Even more disturbing than the violence stemming from an oddly sweet Fra Angelico panel of decapitated saints that Thompson saw in Paris’ Louvre Museum is the cluster of rudimentary figures watching passively on the left.

They are nothing more reminiscent of the peaceful white bystanders in horrific lynching souvenir photos, rendered here in a colorful array as a pleasantly extravagant crowd. A second organic black figure kneels before them and takes a place in the lynching line.

Bob Thompson, "Homage to Nina Simone," 1965, oil on canvas

Bob Thompson, “Homage to Nina Simone”, 1965, oil on canvas

(Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Poussin features prominently in a series of major works that respond to the French Baroque classic’s elaborate paintings based on ancient religious and mythological tales. Thompson appropriated the composition of Poussin’s “Bacchanal with Guitar Player,” for example, and inserted singer Nina Simone, a passionate black liberation icon, into the precisely ordered yet exuberant scene.

Thompson’s “Homage to Nina Simone” is just over two meters wide and slightly larger than Poussin’s painting. Simone is a willowy, lavender figure, very different from the bold primary colors that describe the other revelers, and stands a few steps back. It takes on a cultural role as a lingering, omnipresent spirit distinct from all others.

As an artist, Thompson may have felt a deep kinship with her—and with Poussin, too. He spent almost half of his working life abroad. Poussin was French, but for more than 40 years he lived and worked in Rome, where Thompson decided to move in November 1965. Four months later, a heroin overdose after gallbladder surgery killed him. This inspirational show underscores just how unpredictable the loss was.

“Bob Thompson: This House is Mine”

Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood
When: Tuesday-Sunday: 11am-6pm Monday closed. Until January 8th.
The information: (310) 443-7000, Review: Bob Thompson’s L.A. retrospective is a must-see show

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