I cannot find a place nor a category in which to put my paintings, nor a name to call them, provoked by a feeling of disdain for the gallery going public’s notion of what a painting should be.
In tandem with the anniversary exhibition GRAY at 60, GRAY presents IN FOCUS, a series of artist features centering the practices of artists who have been integral to the gallery’s vision over the decades. In considering the gallery’s intertwined histories of presenting canonical artists alongside those reinventing the canon itself, IN FOCUS traces connections between contemporaries and communities that transcend generations of art history.
As gallery principal Paul Gray notes, “From the beginning of the gallery there was the eclectic mission of acquiring, exhibiting, and dealing in the masters of the century’s first half such as Matisse, Picasso, Léger, Giacometti, and Gorky, combined with representing and exhibiting prominent mid-career artists of the time, Calder, de Kooning, Avery, and Morris Louis, as well as exhibitions for young and emerging artists like 26 year-old Bob Thompson whom the gallery presented in its inaugural show in 1963.”
The first IN FOCUS feature pairs Bob Thompson and Alex Katz, painters whose lives intersected and whose legacies are interconnected. Read on for more about how Thompson, whose brilliant but brief life was the focus of the recent traveling museum exhibition Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine, and Katz, the veteran painter whose prolific career is the focus of his current Guggenheim retrospective, similarly eschewed categorization and art historical trends to produce oeuvres of singular importance and lasting impact.
In Bob Thompson's painting The Judgement of Paris, Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera appear nude before Paris, who reclines in a purple robe. Set in a candy-colored landscape, a pale violet horse attends the group while a large yellow bird, perhaps a stand-in for Mercury, shrouds the gathering in its expansive wingspan. Thompson's canvas is a psychedelic adaptation of Lucas Cranach the Elder's circa 1528 painting The Judgment of Paris in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With chromatic freedom, an expressive hand, and a heavy dose of imagination, Thompson conscripts the German Renaissance artist's version of this canonical subject, upends the sanctity of the 'masterwork,' and ultimately crafts a singular vision.
—Adrienne L. Childs1
Critics of his day often emphasized Thompson’s proximity to citational sources over his deviance from them and the extraordinary friction he generated.
It is indicative of Thompson’s imagination that these successful expressions are realized in a New York loft-studio. But he has long since absorbed the old masters, plus Gauguin, the Fauves, and Cubism—which permits him to create his inner world without reference to the outer.
—Alberta R. Friedlander, in a review of Thompson's solo show at Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago Tribune, May 16, 1965.
Summer Triptych, 1985 is an iconic example of Katz’s synthesis of portraiture and landscape. It depicts a progression of three couples strolling from right to left across the tripartite canvas. Although the subjects appear to be walking together, they are independent of one another and represent three separate, perhaps simultaneous, intervals of time. Katz’s cropping of the images and interruption of the horizon line create a discontinuity in the unfolding of the scene—acting like jump cuts in film—compressing time and liberating the images from their conventional narrative function while divorcing them from any sense of linear or prescribed meaning.
Bob Thompson popped up in Provincetown around 1959. He was a friend of Red Grooms, who was from Nashville. The atmosphere at Provincetown was one of bohemian self-indulgence; there were lots of parties. Jan Müller was the dominant influence. Thompson fit perfectly. I next saw him at the Eighth Street Club in New york. The scene was wild and career-oriented. He didn’t fit, I guess. Red did Happenings; then Thompson went to Rome. Thompson’s paintings became interesting. Our foundation started buying his work. One day Phong Bui called and offered me a piece. When I saw it, I said I’ll take it. I put it up on my wall. It was fabulous. It and a Bonnard are the only pieces that I regret giving away. In a time when the explanations are superior to the art, Bob Thompson’s art has no explanation in words. It’s fugitive, like the poetry of John Godfrey or Jim Brodey. It belongs where ideas are not important.