The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art

By Graham Lock; David Murray | Go to book overview

SIX
The Enigma of Bob Thompson

Richard H. King

Bob Thompson is a hard one to figure out. A man of great energy and ambition, he seemed to have everything going for him, yet he died of a drug overdose at twenty-nine. He was a key figure in the late 1950s/early 1960s Greenwich Village scene, acquainted with everyone who counted, such as LeRoi Jones, Allen Ginsberg, and Ornette Coleman and his band, whom he got to know at the Five Spot jazz club, located across the street from Jones’s apartment. Yet in the last three to four years of his life, when Jones and other young black artists and intellectuals were beginning think in terms of a Black Arts Movement, Thompson turned not to African or to African American sources for his inspiration. Rather, he and his wife, Carol, left for Europe, where he was drawn to painters of the Italian Renaissance (Masaccio, Piero della Franscesca), Nicolas Poussin, the Dutch surrealist before the fact, Hieronymous Bosch, and unclassifiables such as El Greco and especially Goya.1 His paintings were increasingly dominated by motifs from classical mythology and the Bible. But he did not paint them in a traditional style or transfer the stories to a contemporary setting; instead, he took paintings by pre-modern European masters and recolored them. The effects were singular, to say the least. A single painting might include figures with white, brown, black, and blue skin. Along with a foreshortening of perspective and elimination of bodily features, especially facial ones, by means of the bold, bright colors, the paintings were flattened toward the surface. Hilton Kramer’s suggestion that Thompson also owed a debt to Henri Matisse is far from implausible.2

Born into a middle-class black family in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1936, Thompson was no untutored prodigy from a remote backwater, though he has been likened to a southern version of Jean-Michel Basquiat. He received a sound, if segregated, education at all-black Louisville Central High and won yearly art scholarships at the University of Louisville, whose art department was au courant with the latest artistic trends. His own training was modernist in ori-

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