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‘He Raises the Bar for Me’: 4 Artists on the Influence of Bob Thompson

The legacy of the painter Bob Thompson, who died at 28 in 1966, is well out of proportion to his short life. A retrospective now at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, through Jan. 9, presents a stunning look at a Black painter who looked to the old masters for inspiration; his bold attitude toward art history is summed up in the show’s title, “This House Is Mine.”

Thompson often quotes inspirations like Goya and Poussin, but his inimitable style is marked by silhouetted figures in bright, solid colors, placed in often mysterious scenarios in pastoral settings. His treatments of religious themes like martyrdoms refer obliquely to the Black experience in Jim Crow America; the Kentucky-born artist was just a teenager when Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. A few years later, he moved to New York and joined avant-garde circles, participating in Happenings organized by the likes of Allan Kaprow and painting portraits of the writers Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg.

The most recent major Thompson exhibition, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1998, was curated by Thelma Golden, now director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. (Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times that the show “brims with a raw talent and unquenchable ambition that are engaging and irresistible, even if Thompson never quite gained control of them.”)

Many artists collect his work, from Alex Katz, whose foundation donated works to the Colby, to Charline von Heyl and Christopher Wool, lenders to the show. In a poetic illustration of Thompson’s importance to his peers, the catalog’s endpapers show the reverse side of a Rosalyn Drexler canvas, stretcher bars and all, revealing that it was painted on the back of an unfinished Thompson painting salvaged from among items he discarded in 1961.

“I think he exists outside of time,” says Diana Tuite, the new show’s curator. “He brings to his work a profound understanding and relentless curiosity about what it takes to put a composition together. I think that is the reason that so many artists return to the work, live with the works, and want to continue to turn the work over in their minds.”

All the same, Thompson’s work is not as well-known as it might be. But after closing in Maine in January, the show travels to the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, ensuring a close look by new generations. (The market may already be catching up; just last month, “The Bargaining(1961) fetched $212,500 at Christie’s, against a $50,000 high estimate.)

Four artists — Peter Doig, Rashid Johnson, Naudline Pierre and Henry Taylor — spoke to The Times about how Thompson has inspired them. Here are edited excerpts from their conversations.

Hilton Als and I curated a show, “Self-Consciousness,” at VeneKlasen/Werner Gallery in Berlin in 2010, for which we borrowed two works by Thompson. That’s when I started spending a lot of time looking at his work, and I ended up buying one. I couldn’t bear to send it back. I’ve been looking at it almost every day since, which has been a great source of pleasure and of intrigue because of its freeness and spirit.

It’s an unusual one, called “Europa,” based on the Greek myth [in which Zeus, in the form of a bull, seduces the Phoenician princess Europa and carries her away]. It definitely feels like it’s coming out of a dream. The inspiration, for me, comes from where he dares to go and the space that he depicts. Maybe dream space sounds a bit trite, but certain artists make works that operate so that you feel like they show a netherworld, but one that is closely connected to our reality. He’s not dealing in realism but a type of expressionism. Sometimes you can think like you’re in an Arcadia, but others, almost Hell. There’s a foreboding and a darkness.

Europa” is from 1958, when he was making pictures with shadowy, hatted, lurking figures. So even though it’s based on a myth, with a naked figure riding a bull, in the background, there’s a figure that almost looks like a spy from the contemporary world.

He’s difficult to get close to. I don’t feel like I want to get that close that I have to quote him. Inspiration comes in other ways in my case, like what I described about the dream, the netherworld. There’s a timelessness to his work.

His paintings are very sophisticated and worldly. The thing about Thompson is, he died at an age when most artists are students. I didn’t start exhibiting until I was almost 40. The work feels youthful, sadly, because it was. It feels fresh and bold and brave. He wasn’t a tentative youth.

I became aware of Thompson’s work 20-plus years ago. I became mesmerized with his project, how it resonated, its allegorical nature, its lack of dependence on one particular philosophy to conjure a complicated telling of the world in which we live.

Bob’s work deals with the relationship to landscape and the complexity around how a lot of Black people think about the outdoors. The history that we have to negotiate around that subject, particularly in this country, is quite loaded, because of our history of working the land as “property” providing free labor. There are a lot of opportunities to explore what and how those spaces inform our understanding of the landscape.

A lot of my conversations about him start with me bringing up Bob’s work and the person opposite me expressing that they’re unfamiliar [with it]. I’ve included him in shows I’ve curated. I’ve been informed by his work from multiple perspectives. As we continue to redefine how canonical systems inform us and re-establish the parameters for how we identify important projects, he’s going to continue to play a more substantive role. The leash is getting shorter for folks to be unfamiliar.

Thompson feels like a part of a lineage for me. Like a distant family member. You can absorb someone’s influence and it leaks out in different ways. Certainly there’s the sense of color, the flattening of three-dimensional aspects of the figure, overlapping of bodies, and subtraction of detail for the sake of composition. There’s a lot of imagination to his work, and I too am not interested in things seeming real, but rather seeming unreal.

I can’t not think about race. In my everyday existence, I feel the spaces where people like me haven’t been seen. But I’m also thinking about the freedom of creating my own version of those spaces, bursting through what’s been done before. I’m remixing and reimagining and reinventing, and just painting what I want to see and feel, just as he did.

People want context, a way to place my work, and it’s meaningful to have someone who went before me. I’m always talking about El Greco and Bob and William Blake. Obviously, I have more influences, but those are my three. I will keep coming back until I have exhausted all the ways I can use them.

I loved Bob’s work right away. I think I stumbled on him in a bookstore. I was like, “Damn, how come they didn’t tell me?” It was like a jewel. I was ecstatic. He just hit hard right away.

He was representational, but he abstracted everything. He said, “I’m gonna make a Black person blue, and a blue person red.” Look at Picasso. He had a Blue Period. How much freedom does that give you? Thompson loved music and was running with Ornette Coleman. This was an avant-garde artist. Free association, that’s why you can be intuitive and have some representation occupying the same space. The less you adhere to, the freer you are. It takes a lot of courage.

He’s not necessarily deconstructing but reinterpreting, like Picasso reinterpreted Velázquez. A lot of us do it.

I even did a painting of his just to remind myself. It was a nod. Man, that orange. People’s palette is just different sometimes. It just looks so good and it feels good. You might like seeing red but you don’t wear red. You’re not trying to do him. But you don’t mind if something permeates.

Human beings — we might all be connected! Black, white, yellow. Red, yellow, blue, maybe he was thinking about all this too. I mean, he married a white woman.

A lot of people use bright colors. But your orange ain’t kickin’ like that. He raises the bar for me, too.

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