Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine

Brooklyn Rail 2022.

The tree slashes across the canvas, splitting the scene nearly in two. One side is a pastoral landscape, an earthy meadow of dirt and grass, giving way to undulating mountains. The central peak, a deep green mountain, is rendered with an almost comically expressive face as it peers down at the menacing scene below. The other half of Bob Thompson’s painting, Untitled (Tree Lift), 1962, is dominated by the silhouette of an intensely red male figure, desperately attempting to lift the tree upright, his outstretched body grappling with the weight of it. A mysterious crowd of featureless figures has gathered to cheer him on. There is the brown mound of a man, the yellow woman with red lipstick and black pubic hair, a black figure wearing a stark white mask, his fist up in solidarity. The tree is fundamental to their way of life. Towards the top, branches jut out on each side, giving the appearance of a cross. Here the lynching tree and the renowned symbol of Christianity have the same emotional roots. 

Thompson (1937–66) had a knack for keeping us on the edge of our seats. Throughout the exhibition Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine it becomes clear that he moved fast, that in the moment, most could not keep up. After leaving Louisville University in 1958, he was relentless, finishing over 1,000 paintings before passing on at the age of 28. 

Thompson left the South for Provincetown, Mass., before settling in New York, a move which proved to be cathartic. He found community among the downtown painters, famed jazz players, and the Beat writers. In 1960 he married Carol Plenda, a white woman, which would have been unimaginable back south due to the stringent anti-miscegenation laws. Together they traveled. As the art world inched out of Abstract Expressionism, Thompson was most inspired by the Old Masters, something that was deeply out of fashion in Post War New York art. They ran around Europe, chasing the bacchanal paintings from the Renaissance and Baroque periods and the intense colors of the Fauvist landscape painters. Thompson used these works as anchors for his own paintings, reinterpreting them as bold statements on the social tensions surrounding sex and race back home. He used color as a Trojan horse, delivering the harshest criticisms in the lushest packages. 

It’s fitting that stylistically Thompson is most frequently associated with the free jazz musicians. They shared a sense that you needed to learn the rules, only to systematically reject them and push towards an entirely new language. In Garden of Music (1960) a clamorous ensemble has gathered on the grass for a concert, among them Ornette Coleman on saxophone, trumpeter Don Cherry, John Coltrane in action, Sonny Rollins with the dazzlingly brass saxophone, Ed Blackwell on drums, and Charlie Haden on the double bass in the rear. A small group of primarily nude apostles has assembled between lollipop trees and beneath Gumdrop Mountains. This is Eden. Despite so many of the characters here brimming with something dark, there was optimism and faith that their art could go on forever when they were together. 

One of the great pairings in the exhibition is the side-by-side of the fantastical painting North African Dream (1963) and Untitled (Study for North African Dream, (1963), its small gouache counterpart. Thompson drops us in the middle of a trance. It’s an awe-inspiring, mind-bending scene, a fantasy, a memory of a time in Morocco in 1963. In his riff on Surrealism, the figures are detached from the landscape, floating in an astral plane. Hips thrust, rumps protrude, and a boggle-eyed pink zebra stands upright and sleepwalks towards his desires. His hoof flows directly into the body of a red devil, his tail between his legs. All around them, Thompson has created new shapes, undulating curves that break free from convention. The artist sees this when he closes his eyes; his paradise lost or left behind. 

The smaller preparatory study is softly rendered, developed with gouache so thin that text from the exhibition announcement below peaks through. Brushy and whimsical. You could almost see Thompson coming from a dream, urgent to get the vision down on paper.

The saxophonist Raphaël Imbert once wrote that Don Cherry was “never where you expected him to be.” It is similar to Thompson. There was so much to say in his abbreviated career that all we can do is race behind him, our heartbeats quickening as he builds towards crescendos of grief and exaltation. Then it’s on to the next painting, series, or idea. The exhibition is so full of defiance and momentum that the paintings are best when we can slow ourselves down long enough to marvel at the miracle of seeing all these works together.