May 11, 2023

Bob Thompson

In the dozens of paintings by the late Bob Thompson (1937–1966) on view this spring at Michael Rosenfeld and 52 Walker, the material realities of mid-century America appear only once, in Stairway to the Stars (1962). The painting, installed at Michael Rosenfeld, shows a cluster of multicolored figures descending an airplane staircase. The human forms are painted with the roving, energetic hand that pervades Thompson's canvases, each body a contained field of ochre, yellow, violet, teal, and pink. In contrast, the grisaille, steel staircase is represented using photostat, underscoring its mechanical alienness. Thompson withholds the emotive, humanist index of gesture, coding the industrial interloper with reproducibility and impersonality through his anomalous use of filmic media. At the painting's bottom edge is a hatted, silhouetted form, foregrounded to sit spatially between the viewer and the depicted scene. This figure recurs as Thompson's avatar, and it positions the painter as a simultaneous witness and narrator, an intermediary between the fields of reality and its depiction. Thompson's avatar suggests a messenger whose testimony can be believed, but whose stylistic inventions might arise in the process of transmission.

Bob Thompson, who died weeks shy of his twenty-ninth birthday but was wildly prolific within his short career, painted allegorical, mythological content, modeling his compositions after those of the Old Masters but amplifying them with his fresh rehearsal. During his short lifetime, Thompson worked at the interstice of several contradictions and conflicts fracturing the art world and tearing through the nation. Within his immediate circle, painters were pitting figuration against abstraction, with many claiming that the arc of art history had irreversibly tilted away from illusion and toward the literal painted surface. But Thompson's gestural and chromatic improvisation within the sedate, rational scaffolding of Renaissance painting allowed him access to both picture and gesture, order and affect. A Black man living through segregation and the Civil Rights movement, Thompson took the binary of black and white and, with his paintbrush and palette, refracted it into a prismatic array, his boldly colored silhouettes fragmenting pigmentation beyond categorization and blunting alterity. Working along the fault lines of so many dualities and conflicts, Thompson's emulation of Old Masters frequently entailed that his subject matter would be the eternal conflicts of history's grand narratives, themes of good and evil, man and nature, order and chaos. The dualities that concerned Thompson were essential and philosophical in nature, eliding the politicized distinctions between bodies that permeated the national landscape.

At 52 Walker, An Allegory (1964) encompasses the formal hallmarks of Thompson's practice. A set of figures cloaked in solid skeins of cadmium orange, yellow, and red ride a carriage drawn by two ultramarine horses, the latter pair painted with such flatness as to appear a single chimeric beast. One bird is perched on the chariot caboose; another attempts to take flight while a seated red figure pulls it back to earth. The saturated planes of localized color align much of the painting's surface with the flatness that Clement Greenberg posited as modernist painting's apex. Yet across the top third of the painting, this restraint is unleashed, the sky a dense accumulation of gesture and paint. Among Thompson's classically ordered canvases, this turbulent sky recurs, rendered with churning, roiling brushwork and a full, accretive palette of reds and blues, yellows and greens. This treatment denotes the cosmos as mercurial and untamed, its interminable depths placing it in fundamental opposition to the solidity of earth and its inhabitants. With his deliberate brushwork, Thompson adjusts his surfaces according to the ontological registers they represent.

To shade difference into the sky aligns Thompson further with the Quattrocento artists whose compositions he emulated. For the Old Masters, celestial elements held divine significance and were partitioned from earthly events. In his 2002 book, A Theory of /Cloud/, Hubert Damisch describes the cloud as a formal device insulating the heavenly from the terrestrial. As linear perspective developed, the cosmos became more problematic, a vast space devoid of sites, and thus impossible to map to with the geometric lattices that would otherwise govern the organization of a picture. Thompson's measured, flat application when depicting the earth pits modernist rationality against a baroque sky.

In examining the web of contradictions that are alternately undermined and emphasized in Bob Thompson's work, the operations and tenets of allegory are instructive. In Walter Benjamin's 1928 treatise on the subject, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, the theorist likens the procedure of allegorical art to "the division between signifying written language and intoxicating spoken language." Like the musicians in the jazz clubs Thompson frequented, who used music theory as an armature for improvisation, Thompson's expressive brushwork energized the compositions he adopted, telescoping classical restraint with postwar authorial abandon. We see this in Thompson's La Mort des Enfant de Bethel (1964–65), fashioned after Laurent de La Hyre's 1653 rendition; and The Gambol (1960), which borrows its construction from Paul Gauguin's 1897–98 D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (both Thompson paintings are on view at 52 Walker). Each work is consistent with its source material in organization, but sharply divergent in texture and hue. For Thompson, classically orchestrated compositions became a quietly ordered template along which the artist could embellish, with purposeful gesture, an ecstatic rehearsal of a fixed script.

In his 1980 two-part essay, "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism," Craig Owens revisits Benjamin's principles, positing that allegory possesses "capacity to rescue from historical oblivion that which threatens to disappear." Such a recuperative model of history would seem hardly radical for a Black painter working through the Civil Rights movement, were it not for the element of authority that such a recuperation entails. Owens continues, "The allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them. He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter … the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement." Draining his scenes of geographic specificity while availing them to a multicolored body politic, Thompson's appropriation of archetypal pictures was palliative, redefining notions of universality that the Western canon had so thoroughly claimed. What Thompson displaces, as an allegorist, is the presumed essentialism of the West, cracking open the canon to depict truer, more plural narratives.

Katherine Siboni is a writer based in New York.

52 Walker Michael Rosenfeld Katherine Siboni