Mildred Thompson Magnetic Fields at Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens

The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, FL acquired Mildred Thompson Magnetic Fields painting early in 2019. I went to see the painting shortly after it was put on public view. Prior to arriving, I had planned to ask then-director Adam Levine why he chose to make this artwork the first to be purchased by the Cummer under his leadership.

Then I saw the painting. Then the reasons become obvious.

It’s undeniably a masterpiece.

You don’t need Levine, who has since moved on to direct the Toledo Museum of Art, to tell you that, but he’s happy to anyway. We spoke about the painting on my 2019 visit.

It has an exquisite balance to it. The center of the magnetic field is actually off center–it is to the viewer’s left and a little bit higher than the center of the composition, so you think that might skew things, but it actually centers the composition in a dynamic way. What you see are these magnetic fields, these concentric ovals emanating, but cropped by the top of the picture plane, so it creates this sense of the expansion beyond what the viewer is able to see and as a consequence, I think it wraps around the viewer–literally–this magnetic field and pulls you into it in this warm embrace.”

Adam Levine, former director, Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Jacksonville, FL

Mildred Thompson Magnetic Fields’ dazzling colors equal its brilliant composition.

“These bright yellows, these bright reds, punctuated by purple dots and green dots and blue arrows so there are these cool colors that provide contrast and visual interest,” Levine said. “These elements together cause you to think, ‘Oh, well, that’s very pleasing,’ at the same you’re thinking, ‘but it’s so interesting’–and there’s no tension between the two.”

Mildred Thompson (American, 1936 – 2003), Magnetic Fields, 1991, oil on canvas, 61 ¾ x 95 ½ in. Purchased with funds from the Rushton William Hays Revocable Trust and the Morton R. Hirschberg Bequest, AP.2019.1.1 ART AND PHOTO © THE MILDRED THOMPSON ESTATE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA

Thompson (1936-2003) was born in Jacksonville making the Cummer’s acquisition of Magnetic Fields, part of a series by the same name, all the more meaningful to the community and important to Levine. She left Florida at an early age to pursue studies in art, studies which would take her around the world.

Mildred Thompson Magnetic Fields comes to the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens

Levine was aware of Thompson’s work prior to arriving at the Cummer. He knew Thompson’s estate was being represented by Galerie Lelong, with whom he’d worked previously.

Galerie Lelong featured Thompson at its fair booth at Art Basel Miami Beach this past December and Levine had the Cummer’s chief curator visit the fair to take a look. Passing its first inspection, the Cummer’s curator next visited Galerie Lelong in New York to inspect its full collection of her work.

Levin explained why this piece was chosen among all of those available:

This was the one we picked, specifically for art historical reasons. We think that its bright palette is really engaging. It has the quintessential gesture that you associate with Abstract Expressionism, you can see the application of the impasto in a way which really is the residue of her hand. It’s a dynamic composition, it’s not symmetrical, but it’s incredibly balanced. There’s a sense of energy; it literally pulses. So although it is not her biggest work, we felt it was the right one for us.”

Along with her starring role at Art Basel Miami Beach, Thompson has finally received a measure of her due.

Her work gave its name to a group exhibition, Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today, which traveled in 2017 from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington and the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida. One of her paintings was used for the cover of the exhibition catalog. The Washington Post wrote a glowing review of the show, focusing on Thompson’s contribution.

The New York Times followed with more praise and the New Orleans Museum of Art just wrapped a first-of-its-kind exhibit of her experimental wood work.

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today (KEMPER MUSEUM O)

Magnetic Fields at the Cummer helping correct the canon

At street level, Levine importantly fills a gap in the Cummer’s collection in the area of Abstract Expressionism. Magnetic Fields’ creation from an artist with local roots represents a bonus. That it comes from an African-American female, a constituency few museums have an abundance of, makes the acquisition significant far beyond north Florida.

“I think the superpower that art museums have is that they create the canon, they create the aesthetic criteria and the aesthetic bar for what is considered great,” Levine said. “I think art museum directors everywhere are orienting towards equality, and quality is fundamentally democratic, it’s fundamentally egalitarian; great comes from all times, all places, it doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter your background, it doesn’t even matter, necessarily, your formal training.”

Mildred Thompson was black. She was a woman. She was an Abstract Expressionist. For a long time in the art world, that meant “three strikes and you’re out.” Thanks to Levine and others, Thompson is back in.

Institutions ignoring every type of minority artist not only took from the artists their financial security and recognition, they took from us all–the art loving public. We were abused as well, although not as personally, by the curators and museum boards who turned a blind eye to their work for 100 years, depriving us the opportunity to know these artists fully, or even at all.

Thompson was making bold, colorful, lively pictures worthy of broad recognition in the 1980s. The art loving public lost thirty years of a relationship with her–and countless others like her.

“I, like many of my colleagues across the museum field, are looking broadly for exquisite works of art, and aren’t confining ourselves to historical big names,” Levine said. “Although it is our hope, of course, by doing things like this, to make Mildred Thompson the household name that she deserves to be.”

Mildred Thompson (American, 1936 – 2003), Magnetic Fields, 1991, oil on canvas, 61 ¾ x 95 ½ in. Purchased with funds from the Rushton William Hays Revocable Trust and the Morton R. Hirschberg Bequest, AP.2019.1.1 ART AND PHOTO © THE MILDRED THOMPSON ESTATE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA

The Cummer has positioned itself at the forefront of this correction to the canon. The acquisition of Magnetic Fields comes on the heels of a large exhibition highlighting the work of another native, black, female artist, Augusta Savage.

“That’s not to suggest that the artists who are in the ‘canon’ aren’t terrific, it’s to say that the access to the networks that allowed their works to become famous introduced selection bias,” Levine said.

You may have never been introduced to what should be your favorite painting or who should be your favorite artist because race or gender encouraged previous tastemakers to ignore that painting or that painter. That’s not only a loss to the artist, it’s a loss to you.

Change is taking place, however, and it won’t take long before a visitor to the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens chooses Magnetic Fields as his or her favorite painting, and Mildred Thompson, as his or her favorite artist, and that visitor likely won’t know how fortunate he or she is.

Magnetic Fields is my favorite painting in my “hometown” art museum, the Cummer, and I look forward to seeing it each time I visit. Every time I do, I love it more.

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