Bob Thompson (1936-1966)
Andy Williams: An American Legend
Bob Thompson (1936-1966)


Bob Thompson (1936-1966)
signed and dated 'R Thompson '63' (lower left); signed and dated again, and inscribed indistinctly 'R Thompson '63 ****' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
86 7/8 x 63 in. (220.6 x 160 cm.)
Painted in 1963.
Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1968
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Bob Thompson, September 1998-January 1999, pp. 116 and 196, no. 92 (illustrated in color).


"Painters in the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance... were employed to educate the people... they could walk into a cathedral, look at the wall and see what was happening... I am not specifically trying to do that... but I am trying to show what's happening, what's going onin my own private way" (B. Thompson, quoted in T. Golden, Bob Thompson, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1997, p. 61).

In the monumental Cathedral, Bob Thompson draws on the classical imagery, vertiginous height and circular arrangement of Renaissance church frescoes and stained glass windows. With fiery red, deep blue, neon yellow and white, he paints dreamlike female nudes and abstract shapes that radiate outwards from a centrifugal sunburst. Ever-present in Thompson's work are allusions to European painting, which he studied extensively during his three-year sojourn abroad. Though guided by the art historical canon, his visual vocabulary is deeply personal, and reframes themes of religion, sexuality and race according to his modern sensibility, creating a work that is at once beautiful and menacing. In Cathedral, the artist also demonstrates the crucial influence of the twentieth century art--painting with the chromatic power of Gauguin or Munch, expanded to the scale of Pollock.

While most of Thompson's work recalls the Old Masters, Cathedral stands out within the artist's oeuvre as it resists alluding to a specific source. The work does find distinct parallels in El Greco's pictures, which also display virtuoso handling of color and space. El Greco's Mannerist compositions similarly combine mythological and religious themes in brightly-colored, crowded compositions. Yet Thompson's narrative remains intensely personal: as an African American, his surrealist palette allows him to allegorically wrestle with the racial bias he saw within art history and everyday life. With blue-haired, red-skinned goddesses, Cathedral implies a multiracial world of the artist's imagination.

Though indebted to European traditions, Thompson was also deeply interested in the avant-garde movements taking place in Paris and New York. With a studio in the notorious Beat Hotel on Rue Gît-le-Coeur, he became close friends with Allen Ginsberg who said of Thompson, "I saw him in at his Left Bank hotel studio I dug his new candy-bright colored style making Poussin-esque space, flat colors surface amorphism delineating 3-D figures...I thought him the most original visionary painter of his days, a first natural American psychedelic colorist" (A. Ginsberg, quoted in T. Golden, Bob Thompson, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1997, p. 60). Thompson's non-linear painting style was informed by his passion for jazz. He used the formal sequence once before in his painting, Ornette, named for Ornette Coleman, the innovative musician who pioneered the free jazz movement of the 1960s. In both works, his formal arrangement parallels the complex nonlinear sequences of jazz. Exhibited at Thompson's celebrated retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Cathedral demonstrates a truly lyrical rhythm through its swirling and interlocking collage of color.