Garden of Music by Bob Thompson (1960, oil on canvas) Credit: Courtesy Smart Museum of Art

The 1960 oil painting Garden of Music—the magisterial centerpiece of a knockout survey of the art of Bob Thompson— shows Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and a half dozen other jazz luminaries coexisting in a pastoral landscape. Some figures are silhouettes, while others are rendered with distinct features. How the painter balanced so many disparate elements into a coherent whole eludes easy description.

In his too-brief career, Bob Thompson synthesized influences from all over the map and across mediums and genres, while continually adding his own ingredients. He is one of those shooting-star-type talents, taken away much too soon. With this dazzling retrospective, organized by the Colby College Museum of Art, he’ll be introduced to a new audience who may be in his debt without even knowing it, and reintroduced to longtime fans, who’ve been singing his praises all the decades he’s been gone.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1937, Thompson was exposed to art and music at an early age and went on to study painting under Ulfert Wilke and other exiled German expressionists at the University of Louisville in the late 1950s. Spending time in the art community of Provincetown, Massachusetts, he quickly made connections with both painters and musicians working out experimental forms in the wake of abstract expressionism, developing his own voice while paying tribute to his forebears. 

Bob Thompson in his studio on Rivington Street in New York City, c. 1964. Credit: Charles Rotmil

He spent significant time in the early 1960s in Europe, soaking up the masterpieces of European painting, with which he had an ongoing, sometimes playful, sometimes combative dialogue. Finding inspiration in a tradition from which—as a Black man—he was all but excluded, Thompson nevertheless carved out his own place in the continuum of Western representational painting. Pictures of figures in a landscape in the late 1950s to early 1960s were the furthest thing from the cutting edge. At a time when pop art, minimalism, and performance art were the thing, Thompson was riffing on Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828). But these were not pastiches, nor mere tributes. As Thompson wrote in 1965 in an unpublished artist’s statement posthumously collected in his papers, “I’m interested in the relationships of the figure and the landscape—mass against movement.”

“Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine”
Through 5/15: Tue-Wed and Fri-Sun, 10 AM-5 PM, Thu 10 AM-8 PM (closed Mon), Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, 5550 S. Greenwood, 773-702-0200,

Always conscious of the tension between flat forms and illusionistic perspective, Thompson placed brightly colored but often featureless people in natural settings that could not logically accommodate them. These various creatures are sometimes cartoonish (and other times visually accurate) but their path through and relationship to their environment is always up in the air. Do they belong? Where are they from? Where are they going? Unlike narrative art forms such as literature or film, painting can pose simultaneous questions with no resolution and still feel satisfyingly complete. 

The kind of rumination that standing before a Thompson canvas encourages is very much the headspace that listening to jazz can inspire. That’s no accident: aside from old European painting, jazz was Thompson’s jumping-off point, as well as the pot he boiled in. Archival photos in the exhibition show his canvases gracing New York music clubs as the appreciation was often reciprocal. Speaking in a 1988 interview with writer Judith Wilson, the musician Steve Lacy (who was a friend of Thompson’s) remarked, “There was no distance between him and it. The way he painted was like jazz—taking liberties with colors. That’s what we do.” 

Bob Thompson’s painting LeRoi Jones and his Family (1964, oil on canvas) Credit: Courtesy Smart Museum of Art

During his lifetime, Thompson faced criticism for not addressing racism in his work as didactically as some would have liked. However, when walking through “Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine,” no viewer can miss the pervasive theme of the figures in friction with their environment—not to mention the many hanged and maimed bodies throughout. Thompson was well aware of the fraught world he was living in. The fact he chose to evoke it in poetic terms, using motifs from other centuries and cultures, should only raise his standing. It’s easy to beat an audience over the head with messages about suffering and inequality, but much harder to fashion work that will speak across decades to viewers who may or may not know the setting and circumstances under which it was made.

Thompson died of a lung hemorrhage, shortIy following gallbladder surgery in 1966. He was just shy of 29. While it’s true that he was a distinct minority as a Black man in the mid-20th-century American painting scene, there were precursors like Romare Bearden, near-contemporaries like Robert Colescott, and now followers like Kerry James Marshall; all engaged in their individual ways with the tensions between European and Black legacies and traditions. Today, Thompson should be the patron saint of a new generation of Black painters, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. Each takes the past and puts it through the mysterious mechanism that forms art from influence and experience. I wonder what he’d be painting now if he had stuck around.

Editor’s Note: as of April 26, 2022, this article has been corrected to reflect Thompson’s cause of death, according to Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, the representatives of Thompson’s estate.