Looking to Poussin: Bob Thompson’s Drawings
Bob Thompson, Drawings at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects
November 30-January 8, 2012
208 Forsyth Street at East Houston
New York, (917) 861-9380
How amazing is the diversity of the modernist American art world, and how limited are the traditional official histories! In 1958, Bob Thompson (1937-1966) drew Untitled (Man in Forest)— almost good enough to be by Georges Seurat, if we could imagine that the Frenchman had lived to look at and learn from German expressionism. In his time, the abstractions of Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko dominated the New York galleries. Thompson made his pastel Study for Expulsion and Nativity in 1963, conjoining the scenes of Eve’s Fall and Christ’s birth in a high art version of a comic strip that juxtaposed images riffing on Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Piero della Francesca’s Nativity. By then, Andy Warhol’s pop art had emerged and Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg’s Postmodernism had to be reckoned with by Americans. But while New Yorkers experienced this amazing transition, as if in a parallel universe, Thompson, who moved to Europe in 1961, was looking to Poussin and Italian Renaissance painters for inspiration.
Nowadays, Thompson is displayed at MoMA, but I have the sense that his manner of figurative art, which was influenced by Red Grooms, Gandy Brodie and Jan Müller, remains hard to fit into our narratives of American Modernism. This show of more than twenty works on paper, most not previously displayed, reveals an amazing variety of art. Charlie Haden (1960) and Portrait of Nina Simone, Provincetown (1965) are marvelous linear ink images resembling David Hockney’s drawings from the 1960s. Waiting Figure #4 (1958), a watercolor, darkly brooding, maybe owes something to Northern Symbolist painters. Untitled (Seated Nude) (1959), a pastel in pink and grey, is a mysterious female figure, whose sources, if any, elude me. And the big Last Painting (1966), oil with ink on canvas, inspired by Titian’s Venus and Adonis, transforms the colors and compositions of its Venetian source in a radical way that I admire but don’t understand.
Thompson is a deeply mysterious artist. After seeing Cézanne’s female bathers, he reportedly said: “I paint a woman that is real for me . . . and then I am going to put her right beside a tree and I relate her to the sensuality of the tree.” That’s clear enough, but I don’t comprehend how in Untitled (Nude in Forest) (1958) the sensuality of the trees, drawn in charcoal relate to the white figure of the female nude in the distance. Nor do I grasp its relationship to Untitled (Landscape) (1958), a watercolor revealing very different trees, and, so it seems to me, a very different artist. Furthermore, these drawings are done in a different style than the two ink-on-paper images after old masters, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (1961-63) and Entombment (1961). Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects seems to be presenting a small group show, including at least five draftsmen, each one excellent but all very different, a prismatic reflection of an excited painter exploring several different paths at once, an artist whose death precluded a fuller integration.