Broad Brimmed Art-Bob Thompson Revived
Dec. 19, 2011
Painter Bob Thompson (1937–1966) straddled several artistic worlds. From Old-Master Europe, to hipster 1950s Provincetown, to the Beat poetry and bebop jazz scene of New York City, he was there, absorbing all that he could of these seemingly disparate universes. His artistic mentors and friends ranged from Red Grooms and Lester Johnson to LeRoi Jones and Charlie Haden. Thompson lived and worked in that most interesting transition period in American art: from post-WWII to the very beginnings of Pop Art.
Europe was still the primary influence on American painters, but along with the evolution of jazz and Beat poetry, a unique and totally American visual vocabulary was developing. Thompson played an underrated but crucial role in this journey. Traveling from hipster Provincetown to Europe, Thompson remained rooted in the present but immersed himself in great art of the past, and developed his unique vision and style.
I was thrilled to hear of the current show of Thomson’s work at Steve Harvey Fine Art Projects on the Lower East Side. This show consists solely of Thompson’s drawings, most of which have never been shown before. The wait, though far too long, was worth it. This illuminating and serious exhibition provides a view into Thompson’s development from brilliant novice to self-assured master. Images that were to become iconic for Thompson as a painter—the artist as shadow observer in a broad brimmed hat, the nude in a primeval forest—show their genesis in these drawings.
There are some stunning beauties: “Untitled (Figure with Balloon)” is the simplest of compositions and executions, yet it is as rich and moving as a drawing can be. Loose, but not casual, swaths of watercolor define the figure in a classical but wholly original way. “Portrait of Nina Simone,” a simple pen and ink line portrait of the singer, conveys all the complexity and richness of both artists, the portrayed and the portrayer.
This exhibition begins to fill in the gaps of what we know about Bob Thompson. Seeing his drawings and preparatory sketches for future large paintings rounds out our understanding of how this brilliant painter approached his work. The exhibition whet my appetite for a full-scale retrospective of Thompson’s work, painting and drawings. For fans of Thompson’s work and those interested in mid-century painting, this is a critical exhibition to see.
Bob Thompson Drawings
Through Jan. 8, 2012, Steve Harvey Fine Art Projects, 208 Forsyth St., 917-861-7312 or 212-281-2281, www.shfap.com.