I love the artwork of Mildred Thompson (American, 1936–2003). I use one of her Magnetic Fields paintings as the avatar across all my social media handles. There’s a lot more to this Jacksonville, Florida-born artist than her vibrant, large-scale, pulsating, later-career abstractions for which she’s best known.
Early in her career, Mildred Thompson created abstract work in wood which ran counter to the more representational and overtly political art of her time, particularly among Black artists. An accomplished painter, sculptor, writer and musician, Thompson began constructing her wood assemblages, which she called Wood Pictures, while living in New York in 1961.
“She always described that she would come up with the idea first and then find the right medium to fit how she wanted to express that idea,” Melissa Messina told me. Messina was a student of Thompson’s and manages the artwork in her estate which is represented by Galerie Lelong & Company in New York. “Sometimes it took shape in sculpture, sometimes printmaking, sometimes it was lyrics to a song–she was very idea driven and then found the medium that worked for her to get that concept across.”
Thompson further developed her wood practice while living and working in Germany throughout the 1960s. Located somewhere between painting, sculpture and collage, Thompson’s wood works combine found and manipulated wood segments into sophisticated, expressive compositions that represent a unique contribution to art of the period.
She was fascinated by wood’s natural variations in texture, color and form.
“For Mildred, what was very spiritual, almost to a religious extent, was the patterns that you see in nature connect us all, connect all aspects of the universe,” Messina explains. “The same thing you see under a microscope are the same patters you see in a telescope. The rings and knots in wood are the same thing you find in your fingerprint. (She observed) that natural phenomenon, using that as a kind of fuel for her abstract language.”
Thompson’s rejection of figuration and a direct address of the Black experience surely cost her museum and collector notoriety.
“I don’t think a lot of Black artists during their lifetime, of her generation, were really given their due because there was this expectation by the broader art world, as well as the Black art community, that you would make work that is about the Black experience and the Black body,” Messina said. “For (Thompson), she was the Black experience; she was the Black body and she didn’t feel beholden to making work that was overtly narrative and overtly political.”