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Bob Thompson at the Whitney Museum

Staff Report

NEW YORK, 28 October 1998 - The first major exhibition in twenty years of the work of the African-American figurative expressionist painter, Bob Thompson (1937 - 1966), opened last month at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition will run until 3 January 1999 and includes over 100 paintings and drawings.

A prolific artist, Thompson was rapidly to become an enfant terrible and achieved an unprecedented level of critical and commercial success for an African-American painter of his age. His career ended prematurely. He died in Rome in 1966 following gall bladder surgery at the early age of 29, leaving a heritage of over 1,000 works.

While still a student, Thompson became associated with Red Grooms, Lester Johnson, Robert Frank, Allan Kaprow, Alex Katz, and other members of the Sun Gallery movement in using figurative images to take advantage of Abstract Expressionism's freedom from photographic reality. At age 21, Thompson exhibited thirteen paintings and Walter P. Chrysler, his first collector, bought all of them.

LeRoi Jones and His Family
LeRoi Jones and His Family (1964)

Thompson moved to New York in 1959, and by the time of his first solo New York show the following year at the Delancey Street Museum, his style had become apparent even though it would evolve. Receiving a grant in 1961 from Wall Street stockbroker Walter Gutman, Thompson and his wife Carol left for London on the Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by art historian and collector Stephen Pepper. The couple moved to Paris where they settled for some time near Montparnasse, until a Whitney Foundation's Opportunity Fellowship grant allowed them to extend their stay in Europe and they moved to the Spanish island of Ibiza.

The time spent in Europe was to leave its mark. Thompson began what were known as his "head-on confrontations," lifting portions and sometimes whole compositions from the works of great masters of the European tradition such as Bosch, Goya, Titian, Poussin, Caravaggio and Piero della Francesca. It was during this time that he developed a clarity of design. Treatment of landscape became more geometricized, modeling and anatomical detail in figures was discarded and the artist's brushwork became more controlled. The result was flatter, more even color areas combined with complex collage-like modes of composition.

The two years following his return to New York were to be the artists brightest. Interviewed in 1965, Thompson described the emergence of his "true" artistic identity: "I got into a groove ... where the subject matter was monsters. The whole thing was involved in a sort of poetry and the relationship was like man and woman to nature and beasts."

Homage to Nina Simone
Homage to Nina Simone (1965)

During his short nine-year career, Thompson had solo and group shows at many prestigious galleries in major cities such as New York, Detroit and Chicago and in 1965, his show at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York was to break gallery attendance records. Today, Thompson's work has become part of America's leading public collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the Detroit Institute of Art among others.

The Bob Thompson retrospective has been partially underwritten by AT&T, the National Committee of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Fletcher Asset Management Inc. and TLC Beatrice International.

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, New York, N.Y.
Bob Thompson Retrospective: until 3 January 1999

Photos: Whitney Museum of American Art

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