African-American figurative painter Bob Thompson produced over a thousand paintings during his short life. He died just before his twenty-ninth birthday in 1966. Thompson was known for his bold, colorful silhouettes, influenced by Old European Masters and the jazz-influenced Abstract Expressionist movement. His work is currently on display at the High Museum in the exhibition “Bob Thompson: This House is Mine”.
Michael Rooks, the High’s curator of modern and contemporary art, joined “City Lights” producer Summer Evans to discuss the life and art of Bob Thompson.
Highlights of the interview follow below.
The sentiment behind the title track “This House is Mine”:
âIt is a relatively small and modest painting. The title is evocative. I mean, it suggests that Thompson as a young artist, an ambitious young painter, hopes to aim not only to appropriate his art historical ancestors, but also to claim, to claim a claim in the world of art, to find a place in art. world at that time in the late 1950s and 1960s.â
“There’s a wonderful quote in Thelma Golden’s catalog for her 1998 Whitney show, by Ralph Ellison, which basically says that as a black artist in the 1950s, it’s all kind of up for grabs. appropriation, but also not just to own it and own it, but to recreate it through the prism of your own experience as a black artist,” Rooks said. “It’s something that, I think, was important to Thompson, obviously, given the content of many paintings. But what was above all for him, I believe, was this canon of traditional painting which he fell in love with.
A work inseparable from the jazz community that surrounds it:
âActually, he was a musician. He was playing drums. We have a self portrait of him in front of a set of bongos, for example,â Rooks said. “Of course, the New York art scene, the black New York art scene, was jazz, and that’s where a lot of the painters, the post-war abstract painters, were hanging out â in the clubs of jazz. So he met people like Alex Katz and De Kooning, and you name it, a host of 20th century canonical abstract painters and figurative painters at the same time. He met Don Cherry, Orette Coleman, Charlie Hayden, all those incredible jazz musicians and composers who are canonical in themselves in the history of 20th century jazz.
âThe biggest painting in the exhibition has to do with the New York music scene. It is called “The Garden of Music”. It’s from 1960, and there are musicians that I mentioned earlier – Charlie Hayden, Don Cherry, others – and it’s this kind of bucolic image of musicians performing naked, surrounded by other figures naked in a landscape, a sort of bucolic, paradisiacal landscape suggesting a sort of paradise or utopia that the artist perhaps expressed through his affiliation and association with these great artists.
On Thompson’s art in the context of her then-illegal interracial marriage:
âHow could an artist, a black artist at that time, not incorporate his feelings and thoughts about this kind of existential threat into his work, right? Especially an artist who marries a white woman in 1960? Rooks reflected. â’Black Monster’â¦presents this, literally this monstrous, monstrous figure in the upper left of the canvas entering the scene with its fangs showing, attacking or pouncing on a white woman. And I think if you can refer to other kinds of art historical subjects that are mythological in that sense, how can we not talk about the fact that the issue of sex or interracial marriage was historically a pretext for terrorism racial at that time, and still is?
“Bob Thompson: This House is Mine” is on view at the High Museum of Art until September 11. Tickets and more information are available at https://high.org/exhibition/bob-thompson-this-house-is-mien/.