Bob Thompson, 1964 | Smithsonian Archives of American Art
1960 WAS A PIVOTAL YEAR for Bob Thompson (1937-1966). He had his first solo exhibition at the Delancey Street Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The same year, he made a rare self-portrait, depicting himself in his Clinton Street studio surrounded by his paintings, a pair of drums, and shelves of books.
The Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., announced the purchase of “Self Portrait in the Studio.” The 1960 work is the museum’s first oil painting by Thompson, a Louisville native. According the the museum, the image captures the artist within two years of departing his hometown. He spent a summer in Provincetown, Mass., before heading to New York.
“The acquisition of a major Bob Thompson painting has been a goal of the Speed Art Museum for years,” Miranda Lash, curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Art Museum, said in a statement. “Thompson, along with the great Sam Gilliam, is one of Louisville’s most important artists. Both artists emerged out of segregated Louisville in the late 1950s and early 1960s and went on to transform our understanding of contemporary painting in different ways. Thompson’s Self Portrait provides a unique glimpse into the identity of an artist who came from Kentucky and went on to create a splash in the New York art world at a remarkably young age.”
“The acquisition of a major Bob Thompson painting has been a goal of the Speed Art Museum for years. …Thompson’s Self Portrait provides a unique glimpse into the identity of an artist who came from Kentucky and went on to create a splash in the New York art world at a remarkably young age.”
— Curator Miranda Lash
BOB THOMPSON (American, 1937-1966), “Self-Portrait in the Studio,” 1966 (oil on board, 40 x 30 inches). | Museum Purchase with Alice Speed Stoll Accessions Fund and funds generously donated by Ambassador Matthew Barzun and Brooke Brown Barzun, Greg Brown and Scott Rogers, John S. and Mary Moss Greenebaum, and Alfred Shands
Thompson attended Central High School in Louisville. After giving up on his pre-med program at Boston University after one year, he transferred to the University of Louisville Hite Art Institute, where he attended from 1957 to 1958. (The University of Louisville is also the alma mater of Sam Gilliam, who was born in Tupelo, Miss.) The university faculty included a number of German artists whose penchant for expressionism heavily influenced Thompson, who in turn developed his own distinct style, a bold, vibrant, emotional form of narrative painting that bridged figurative expressionism and abstract expressionism.
Following his maiden outing, many more solo shows followed at notable commercial venues including Martha Jackson Gallery and Paula Cooper Gallery, both in New York, and Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago. In 1964, he was also featured in the “Seven Young Painters” exhibition at Yale University. He went to Paris then Rome in 1966 and required gall bladder surgery. He dedicated himself to his practice for eight years before dying months after the procedure at the young age of 29.
“His death at twntey-nine seemed to many untimely, although, given his fast-paced lifestyle and heroin addiction, ultimately unavoidable. Thompson’s fame evolved from his art and his persona, both can be described as ardent, irrepressible, larger-than-life. He was like a force of nature—sweeping in, then sweeping out, leaving an indelible memory on all who encountered him,” Thelma Golden wrote in the catalog that accompanied a 1998 retrospective of Bob Thompson at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She added that the intensity of his personality was reflected in his art.
“Thompson’s fame evolved from his art and his persona, both can be described as ardent, irrepressible, larger-than-life. He was like a force of nature—sweeping in, then sweeping out, leaving an indelible memory on all who encountered him.” — Thelma Golden
Given his early death, the self-portrait is particularly significant and symbolic. “Seated, eyes closed, in a moment of stillness, the painting evokes a sense of solitude and contemplation,” explained Lash. “Alone in the studio, he contemplates his work and his practice.” The museum owns one other work by Thompson—”Untitled (Yellow Nude),” a 1961 watercolor.
As a select group of important African American artists active in the 20th century continues to receive long-delayed recognition by the mainstream art world, Thompson is among a group that is being embraced and celebrated by their hometowns. Local communities are preserving the legacies of black artists through acquisitions, exhibitions, research and educational programming, and historic markers. Like Romare Bearden in Charlotte, N.C., Beauford Delaney in Knoxville, Tenn., William H. Johnson in Florence, S.C., and Alma Thomas in Columbus, Ga., Louisville is proudly laying claim to Thompson through its first major acquisition of his work.
“Bob Thompson was an explosive force in the art world during his tragically short life, yet he remains far better known in New York than in his own hometown” Stephen Reily, director of the Speed Art Museum, said in a statement. “We are delighted to begin reversing that history, especially with a self-portrait that reminds us all that a young child from West Louisville can reach the highest levels of artistic fame and appreciation.” CT
TOP IMAGE: Bob Thompson in his New York studio at 6 Rivington Street. | Bob Thompson Papers, Smithsonian Archives of American Art
“Bob Thompson” accompanied a retrospective of the artist at the Whitney Museum in 1998. The volume’s foreword notes, “the first major survey of Thompson’s work in 20 years, provides an opportunity to celebrate the brief but intense career of an artist who managed to create over a thousand works in the short span of seven years. The fully illustrated catalog includes essays by Thelma Golden and Judith Wilson.
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