Michael Rosenfeld Gallery presents Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy, a solo exhibition and career survey, on view at the New York gallery through May 26, 2023. Presenting Bob Thompson paintings from each year of the artist’s mature practice, 1958–1966, the exhibition will demonstrate the extreme polarities of Thompson’s oeuvre, in which a broad range of art historical references converge through his portrayal of subjects both deeply personal and heroically universal.
In addition to over fifteen Bob Thompson paintings and a selection of works on paper, Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy will include a special installation of archival photographs and sketchbooks, offering an in-depth look at Thompson’s artistic process.
In a tragically brief life, Bob Thompson (1937–1966) created a complex body of work structured by his own symbolic lexicon, fauvist palettes, and compositional devices drawn from the European Old Master tradition. As inspired by the improvisational riffs of jazz as he was by the formal devices of Fra Angelico, Poussin, and Tintoretto, Thompson’s viscerally executed paintings conjure a psychedelic allegory of his own experience.
During the years he lived in New York, the artist was deeply immersed in the avant-garde scene of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, participating in Fluxus happenings, befriending poets Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and frequenting legendary jazz clubs, especially the Five Spot and Slugs’ Saloon.
Thompson died at just 28-years-old from complications following gall bladder surgery and drug abuse.
A child of the Jim Crow South and husband in an interracial marriage, Thompson felt the sociopolitical upheavals of his moment with heightened intensity. Structured by his own deeply personal symbolic vocabulary, Thompson’s rhapsodic compositions offer dramatic narratives centered on the extreme emotional states of his lived experience.
Encapsulating the overarching trajectory of his career while providing a primer on his complex set of references and symbols, Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy celebrates this unparalleled artist’s oeuvre while deepening our understanding of his life and art.
By turns volcanically hot and fluorescently cool, the kaleidoscopic palettes of Bob Thompson paintings embody the hallucinatory ethos of his moment while the formal schema drawn from the historical masterworks he obsessively studied ground his subjects in familiar narratives of tragedy, adoration, and rebellion. Often set in a pastoral countryside or dense woodlands, Thompson’s scenes are populated by Madonnas and saints, monstrous birds, anthropomorphic donkeys, shadowy men in fedoras, and more.
Highlights of Bob Thompson: Agony & Ecstasy will include five large-scale paintings dating to a landmark year in the artist’s practice, 1963, which exemplify his radical approach and constitute a culmination of his travels in Europe from the spring of 1961 to the fall of 1963—his first journey to the continent. Dramatic tableaux of enigmatic interactions and sparse, set-like environs that focus attention on the figures of such works as Untitled (The Proofing of the Cross) and The Nativity revise the central action of their 15th-century referents to compose a scene that embodies the artist’s own desires and fears.
Thompson’s extensive engagement with the works of Spanish Romanticist Francisco Goya reaches its pinnacle in The Struggle, The Dentist, and Tribute to An American Indian, which appropriate select forms from Goya’s Los Caprichos (1799), a set of eighty prints composed as an allegory for the follies of Spanish society; executed during an inflection point in the Civil Rights Movement, many of Thompson’s works suggest a parable of racial identity shaped by the blood-soaked history of his home nation.