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    Members’ Reports

    Nicole L. Woods
    Center 42

    Nicole L. Woods

    Acid Visions: Abstract Figurative Painting and the Afro-Futurism of Bob Thompson

    Immediately following the end of World War II, artists from across the United States joined with artists arriving in New York from all corners of the globe to participate in what David A. Ross has characterized as “the richest and most tangled cultural experiment in history.” In the context of unspeakable violence abroad, the ubiquitous threat of nuclear annihilation, and the counterweight and narrative of the postwar prosperity boom, North America, particularly its urban centers, became the site of a revivified avant-garde that merged painting and filmmaking, architecture and sculpture, poetry and music, producing ever new genres of making and remaking for at least two decades. 

    Bob Thompson in his studio on Clinton Street, New York, 1960, Bob Thompson papers, 1949–2005, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Photo: Charles Rotmil

    Kentucky-born painter Bob Thompson (1937–1966) was a vital part of it all. His brief but fervent career produced a staggeringly prolific body of work (over a thousand paintings and drawings) and he achieved rare success, showing in the top contemporary galleries of the 1960s. Settling in lower Manhattan in 1959, the artist fluidly moved between Beat literary and musical scenes on the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village—mingling with poets LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Allen Ginsberg, jazz musicians Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp, and contributing to the earliest happenings of Allan Kaprow and Red Grooms. In the sociability of these tight-knit bohemian communities, Thompson often painted for days without resting, covering canvas after canvas “hooked” (as he wrote in a letter preserved in the Archives of American Art) “on pigment” and “buried alive” in bright colors. In May 1966, while traveling in Rome, he died from complications related to gallbladder surgery and a drug overdose.

    Remarkably, and despite recognition in major museums and cultural institutions, Thompson is a curiously understudied figure in the history of art. As the Leonard A. Lauder Visiting Senior Fellow, I have been conducting research into his vast corpus, aiming to reconsider the motivations for his elision from the histories of art of the 1960s, and offering an accounting of his practice as one purposely set outside the established painterly taxonomies of the era. An abstract figurative painter who referenced the Western tradition, Thompson produced canvases that are indeed startling, not only in terms of sheer aesthetic output but in the style of his painting. An ardent admirer of old master works of the 15th through 17th centuries, throughout his short career Thompson produced inimitable appropriations (“variations,” as he called them) that aspired to the complex painterly practices of Nicolas Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Francisco Goya. He effectively expanded recurrent motifs as points of departure to create his own private world, one that is brilliantly colored to declare a faith in nature as the source of life. From small gouaches to large oils on canvas, his oeuvre is populated by fantastic dream figures of unlocatable origins crowding the painterly space, looming next to horses, spread-eagled birds, devils, ghosts, apparitions—moods at turns grim, other times joyous. Offering a bold expressionism separated into broad, matte swaths of visionary clusters, many of his best works merge religious and mythological imagery into a singular iconography buttressed by explosive pigment and flattened forms. 

    Painted mostly with areas of flat, vibrant color, eight people or animals, or possibly hybrids, span and fill this horizontal, abstracted composition. The people and creatures’ features are simplified and stylized into bold forms. To our left, a winged woman holds out her arms and grips an uprooted tree, which creates a diagonal up the center of the composition. The woman has fire engine-red hair and grayish-green shadows on her pale, peach face. Her royal-blue dress has a low, sweetheart neckline and her breasts are outlined in a thick black line. The tree she holds has three roots and one branch, which holds a round disk covered in colorful dots, like a nonpareil candy. In front of her, a lemon-yellow person overlaps or becomes a pink, lizard-like creature. The yellow being has red eyes and nostrils, a black cap or hair, and black outlines around the eyes and nose. The creature at the back end has wide red lips, a red-rimmed, black eye, the suggestion of black hair, and red, presumably blood, trickling out of its parted mouth. Closer to us and seen from the waist up, a person with red eyes and lips, brown skin, black hair, and a pink bodice stands with arms overhead, as if holding opposite elbows. The eyes and mouth make wide-open Os. On the right half of the picture, a scarlet-red person with its lower jaw drooping open sits on a white form like a ghost, and plunges one hand, wrist-deep, into the ghost-like form’s mouth. The white creature has red eyes, blue hair, and lies on its back. A brown creature with sharp teeth and a red tongue and eyes reaches up from the bottom edge of the canvas. One clawed hand clutches the white figure’s face over the left ear and the other nails or talons snag onto the red creature’s knee. The final creature has red lips, nose, eyes, hands, and yellow teeth, and it lurks in the background above and behind the red and white pair. Resembling an octopus, it has two arms and three legs, and is mottled with violet purple and carnation pink. The areas around and behind all the figures are expanses of grass green, bubblegum pink, butter yellow, blue, dark gray, or white to suggest a landscape.

    Bob Thompson, Tree, 1962, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2000.39.3

    Beyond how Thompson’s life and death have retroactively shaped our understanding of his inexhaustible productivity, this book-length study begs a heuristic focus, asking instead: Might Thompson’s work be taken up through a different set of operations—one that does not deny critical historiographic tales, but which also seeks to complicate the terrain, especially as it pertains to the preservation of the conventions of figuration, toward more generative ends? For example, how might we rethink Thompson’s compositional strategies and explosively vibrant pigment as actively resisting our expectations of viewing—a kind of undogmatically spiritualist recognition of entering the space of representation as communal witnessing? 

    More than a recovery task of a significant artist, my project intends to expand the accepted narrative of late modernist art as confined to cool displays of pop and minimalist forms, largely by white male artists. Instead I demonstrate that Thompson’s pulsating imagery signals an uneasy correspondence to the era’s anxieties about atomic war, the battle for civil rights, and environmental disaster. Paradoxically hopeful that the bourgeoning Space Age could distill a vision of the future that relied on the reimagining and reengineering of human experience, we may read the monsters, winged creatures, and masked faces that abound in Thompson’s visual lexicon as part of a spiritualist defense—one that has its roots in rich African Diasporic cultural traditions. Reevaluating Thompson’s work in light of rigorous new scholarship on Black ontology and performance studies, my research offers a nuanced and inclusive history of abstract figurative painting and radical experimentalism as they traversed medium specificity in the 1960s and beyond. 

    University of Notre Dame
    Leonard A. Lauder Visiting Senior Fellow, winter 2022

    Nicole L. Woods will return to the University of Notre Dame, where she is assistant professor of modern and contemporary art in the Department of Art, Art History & Design. During the 2022 spring semester, she will present lectures on Bob Thompson at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Smart Museum of Art. She will also be traveling to New York and Louisville to continue her research on Thompson in various archives and collections.