Bob Thompson, Blue Madonna, 1961

This summer, the High Museum of Art presents “Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine,” the first major survey of the artist’s work in more than two decades.

Running June 17 thought Sept. 11, the nationally touring exhibition organized by the Colby College Museum of Art includes paintings and works on paper from his brief, prolific career. Thompson died at the age of 28 in 1966.

Thompson’s bold, colorful canvases were inspired by European masters, but his silhouetted figures and animals in pastoral settings were radical departures from the artists – including Tintoretto and de Goya – who influenced him.

Taking its title from one of his paintings, “This House Is Mine” traces Thompson’s trans-Atlantic artistic journey as he wrestled with the exclusionary Western canon. The exhibition reflects and contextualizes his significance as a contemporary artist and illuminates critical questions about the politics of representation, particularly for Black artists, while presenting new possibilities for a more inclusive art history.

Bob Thompson in his studio on Rivington Street, New York, ca. 1964. (Photo by Charles Rotmil)

“Though his work is represented by major art institutions, Thompson may still be unfamiliar to many. With this exhibition, we aim to introduce our audience to his art and celebrate his important legacy,” said Rand Suffolk, the High’s Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr., director.

“Thompson’s art is like a free jazz adaptation of European art history, breaking down and retooling narrative conventions in an experimental manner,” added Michael Rooks, the High’s Wieland Family curator of modern and contemporary art. “As a result, he quickly developed a mature style that was electrifying and which, implausibly but brilliantly, bridged the vanguard of art and music in New York with art of the old masters. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to present this exhibition.”

Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1937 and studied painting at the University of Louisville. In 1958, he spent a pivotal summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he encountered the work of Jan Müller. The German artist’s figurative style offered a way forward for Thompson, who intensified his analysis of historical European painting, using it as a scaffolding for reinterpretations executed in the chromatic key of Paul Gauguin. “This House Is Mine” features “The Funeral of Jan Müller” (1958), an elegiac painting that exemplifies the relationship between influence and imagination in Thompson’s work.

Bob Thompson, Garden of Music, 1960

By 1959, Thompson had settled in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where he befriended artists, poets and jazz musicians — many of whom became portrait subjects. He participated in “happenings” organized by Allan Kaprow and Red Grooms and frequented The Five Spot, a jazz club where such legendary talents as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Charlie Haden played. These musicians appeared in many of Thompson’s paintings and drawings, including “Ornette” (1960-1961) and “Garden of Music” (1960). It was during this pivotal period that Thompson enjoyed his first solo New York City exhibition, and, within the next couple of years, his work entered some of the preeminent modern art collections in the United States.

In 1961, Thompson made his first trip to Europe, spending time in London and Paris and eventually settling in Ibiza, where he was able to fully immerse himself in the traditions that formed the foundation of his practice. On a second trip to Europe in 1965, he and his wife settled in Rome, where he died tragically in 1966 of complications from surgery.

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.