Thompson’s Gift


I was briefly offended at this exciting show by sounds of excellent jazz. They emanated from speakers in a room that contains dozens of small paintings and drawings, whose massed array did not rescue my mood. Bob Thompson’s littlest pictures are some of the most piquant artworks I know. They should be given individual breathing spaces on the wall. But mostly the music—by Ornette Coleman and other friends and kindred spirits of Thompson, who died an addict at age 29 in 1966 in Rome—made me crabby.

You needn’t do the breaststroke through recorded Debussy at exhibitions of Monet water lilies, and a blaring cancan is left to your mind’s ear when Toulouse-Lautrecs are shown. We normally assume that visual art, if it is worth looking at in the first place, demands the complement and compliment of silence. A soundtrack insinuates doubts about the work’s self-sufficiency or, worse, a form of proprietary condescension to it, as the mascot of a nonvisual sensibility.

But then I resigned myself. What can you do?

Thompson is one of those hopelessly interesting artists who get caught in swirling eddies of patronization forever. Simply, people insist on valuing him for reasons apart from the merit of his painting. Thompson was an African American member of a passionately integrated, Beat-era bohemia that was shattered by Black Power in the late 1960s. He will always be seen to represent that epoch, whose marching order was interracial hedonism, whose anthem was jazz, and whose worm-in-the-rose was heroin.

Admittedly, the period content of Thompson’s paintings captivates. In a pictorial Arcadia derived from Italian Renaissance mythic scenes and bacchanals, he set emblematic nude figures whose predominant red, blue, and yellow conjure a free-loving Rainbow Coalition. The mood of the work is vulnerable ecstasy. A repertoire of mysterious bird forms evokes flights of joy and/or fear. The avian symbology may also indicate Charlie “Bird” Parker—why not?

But Thompson’s painting did not come out of liberated lifestyles and music. It came out of painting. He belonged to a nameless movement, born in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the 1950s, that embraced a peculiar vision of art history. That vision did not conquer the New York art world, to put it gently. The thickly painted figurative modes of Thompson and his colleagues—including Jay Milder, Bill Barrell, and early Red Grooms—were crushed by juggernauting Pop and Minimalism.

The Provincetown look was an aesthetically conservative, emotionally insurgent revival of late-19th-century, Gauguin-esque Symbolism. Its matter and manner announced the artists as a community of untrammeled, funky seers who all but breathed paint. Fanciful but not fatuous in imagery, its best products recall a famous statement of Maurice Denis in 1890: “Remember that a picture—before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote—is essentially a plane surface coated with colors assembled in a certain order.”

Thompson never met the movement’s mentor Jan Müller, a Dutch-born painter of gnomic figures in landscapes, still underrated today, who died in Provincetown in 1958, shortly before the younger artist arrived there. Among Thompson’s first striking pictures was a painting, from hearsay, of Müller’s funeral. Müller’s widow, Dody, gave him decisive advice: “Don’t ever look for your solutions from contemporaries—look at Old Masters.” For the rest of his short life, much of it in France and Italy, Thompson worked hand in hand with the likes of Piero della Francesca.

Thompson’s signature look—which I enjoy, though it seems to give many people trouble—combines linear gawkiness and compositional grace. The inelegance of woozy, arbitrarily colored figures points away from whatever those figures signify. It emphasizes the hieratic beauty of classical schemes that Thompson adapted from Piero, Michelangelo, Poussin, and Goya. A sustained enterprise of homage, this is painting crazy about painting.

Thompson’s hand rhymes love of painting with erotic love. The central term of his art, formally and poetically, is touch: how he lays the pigment on. A 1965 film about Thompson by Dorothy Beskind, on video at the Whitney, shows him doing it, alternating brushes and his fingertips in direct, fuss-free improvisations. (On film, Thompson is camera-shy and looks puffily dissipated; he is glum except while working, when he becomes galvanically focused.) A steadily emanating, grave tenderness results.

Thompson’s work looks Expressionist but really isn’t. If anything, he downplays the emotion of his sometimes violent Renaissance motifs, including a Massacre of the Innocents. His brushstroke is additive, not gestural. It can be brilliantly various, displaying different styles in the same picture—dense and juicy rubbing shoulders with thin and matte. There is no disharmony, because the same hand—”touching” in all senses—presides everywhere.

My absolutely favorite Thompson works are small—forcing intimate registration of his touch—and often painted in gouache (opaque watercolor) on paper. With oil paints, which practically beg for bravura handling, Thompson’s blunt, static strokes can feel rather perversely self-limited—as if a piano were confined to the musical range of a harpsichord. Fresco, for whose heyday he was born centuries too late, could have been his optimum medium. As it is, he uses oils as if they were water-based paints, suppressing their viscosity and transparency.

Consider an amazing untitled gouache of 1963, a detail of which appears on the cover of this show’s fine catalogue. An Icarus figure in red, clutching a yellow bird form, plunges toward the gaping jaws of a sea monster as a nude female (possibly Andromeda, chained to a rock) watches from shore. Does the image sound silly? It is utterly persuasive. Saturated colors in soft, dry pigment drink light, and every touch of the brush, staying where it was put, exhales eloquence. When you turn away from the glowing and glowering little picture of an unspecific tragedy, it turns big and talismanic in your mind.

Thompson entrusted himself and his talent to love. He counted on the ready public empathy that mythic material requires. Like his jazz contemporaries, he proposed to summon a better world out of blood feeling and thin air. Wishing plus beauty would work wonders. Thompson thus made one mistake after another about what is possible in the United States of Cruelty that is the world. But his foolish faith, suspended in paint, doesn’t cease to preserve a dream that someone may yet want to conjure with.