The Great Bob Thompson, in Two Parts

Few painters have used color as vigorously or as variously as Bob Thompson, the remarkable, driven American artist who was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1937, and died in Rome on the brink of his 29th birthday in 1966, worn down by ill health, substance abuse and a seemingly relentless work ethic. But Thompson never doubted his talent and had a voracious appetite for culture in many forms: He consorted with New York’s Beat poets and its free jazz musicians as well as a broad range of artists. His career lasted barely eight years, but he left behind several hundred paintings, drawings and oil studies — a fabulous horde whose magnitude is still not well known.

Thompson’s art was fed foremost by the European painting canon. From Giotto to Manet, he appropriated, subverted and transformed their masterpieces by the simple act of recasting their figures and sometimes their landscapes into saturated colors that still are joltingly contemporary — and function in ways that can feel more fully narrative, spatial, psychological, political and retinal than colors generally do.

Some works are fairly true to the originals in their composition; elsewhere Thompson took liberties of all kinds. Frequent additions include large silhouettes of monstrous birds that protect, threaten or attack — either physically or spiritually. Sometimes the human figures grasp the birds by their feet, holding them aloft, like trophies or weapons.

Since 1998, there have been two major opportunities to study Thompson’s greatness: In that year, Thelma Golden, now the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum of Harlem, and Judith Wilson, the leading Thompson scholar, organized a retrospective at the Whitney Museum, which unfortunately did not travel. In 2021 Diana Tuite curated a retrospective at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Me., that traveled to Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles, but skipped New York. Somehow, no New York museum saw the Colby show as an opportunity to measure the increasingly diverse art world, with people of color and female artists becoming more visible, that emerged in the nearly quarter-century gap between the two shows.

This spring New York has had a substantial consolation prize: a combined total of 30 Thompson paintings from 1959 to 1966 presented by two galleries whose notably different house styles and financial structures form an interesting subtext of their own — old school versus new school.

The more glamorous show is, no surprise, courtesy of a mega gallery. It’s at 52 Walker, a space in TriBeCa established by David Zwirner’s global franchise in 2021 to focus on Black artists, with the dealer Ebony L. Haynes as its director. Intended to function more as a kunsthalle — or alternate space — than a selling floor, 52 Walker was a savvy move: Four of its 14 paintings are from museums and the rest from private collections, and are not for sale.

The 52 Walker show, “Bob Thompson: So let us all be citizens,” has a museum-like gravitas with the art in a roomy space with walls painted a gentle dark blue that offsets the aggressiveness of Thompson’s palette.

Most of the paintings are great or close. The standouts include two early works: dark moody, expressionistic paintings from 1960 indebted to Gauguin, “Wagadu” and “The Gambol.” They also indicate that Thompson’s work from 1958 through December 1960, when he made his first and longest trip to Europe, deserve a show of their own. Also from 1960 is “Bacchanal,” whose light brushy surface and violent tumult of figures reflect the speed of Thompson’s growth at this point.

Two 1964 paintings from the Whitney Museum are overpowering. “An Allegory” is enchanting for the frieze-like progress of a stately wagon whose passengers are watched over by a large blue bird; behind them, the sweep of land, water, islands and sky is breathtaking. All except the Abstract Expressionist-style clouds echo settings from Renaissance paintings. “Triumph of Bacchus” pushes forward a raucous band of celebrants (people, animals, birds) in fiery colors, offset by green. Two elephants in a deep purple-blue and the bright orange silhouette of a giraffe enrich the palette and remind us that Bacchus stopped in India. Thompson’s small, nearly identical study for this painting, in the Hirshhorn Museum, is titled “The Indian Triumph of Bacchus (After Poussin).”

By coincidence more than by collaboration, “Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy” can be seen at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Chelsea. This veteran establishment with one location has represented the Thompson estate since 1996, owned it since 2019, and staged six solos of the artist’s work. The Rosenfeld show is more intimate — thanks to a slew of energetic drawings and other material — but also more uneven in revealing ways.

Things turn sinister in some pieces, like “Untitled (The Proofing of the Cross),” from 1963, which takes its theme from Piero della Francesca. Some of the kneeling figures seem like space aliens, but more disturbing are the three enormous birds looming over the scene and another peeking in from the right.

Sometimes you can imagine the artist looking at a painting and saying, “OK. That’s done enough. On to the next. “ In “The Circus” (1963), two large birds (green and blue) press down on two muscular male silhouettes (red and yellow). Is this a circus act? Tag team wrestlers preparing for a match? Two musicians in the clutches of their inner demons? Once these figures are in place, Thompson fills the background quickly, albeit with a casual flair you don’t often see in his work. The circles and dots in green, black and pink reminded me of Vuillardian wallpaper; then I learned that they more likely are shorthand for a crowd of listeners.

Gauguin is evoked here, too. At the center of the topsy-turvy “The Entombment” — another brushy-surfaced work from 1960 — the yellow lower half of a body could belong to Gauguin’s yellow Christ, although He seems to have been replaced by a She. There’s a veritable spatial spin to “Untitled (Oh Lawd!)” (1963), a kind of inverted Pietà. The mother figure here seems to be a red Christ, whose truncated arms resemble a cross, holding a yellow female on his lap.

Thompson’s legacy is complex. His action-packed scenes and irregular shapes can make color seem more intense and actively retinal than in most abstract painting. Along with artists like William H. Johnson, Stuart Davis, Nellie Mae Rowe and Robert Colescott, his work set a precedent for many younger representational painters using high-keyed palettes. Thompson emphatically opened the past as a living resource while claiming one of the pinnacles of white, male Western culture for future use by others. The borrowed compositions were for him ready-mades — armatures. Like his impatient, unfussy surfaces, they saved him time which he refused ever to waste, down to the last minute.

Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy

Through July 7, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 110 11th Avenue 212-247-.0082; michaelrosenfeldart.com.

Bob Thompson: So let us all be citizens
Through July 8, 52 Walker Street, (212) 727-1961; 52walker.com.

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