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Exhibit seeks to bring native son home to Louisville

by Janene Zaccone, communications and marketing last modified Oct 17, 2012 08:59 AM

The work of artist Bob Thompson, a figurative expressionist painter active in the jazz and Beat cultures and in artistic circles in New York and Europe, holds an important place in 20th century art history.

Exhibit seeks to bring native son home to Louisville

Bob Thompson (1937-1966), “La Caprice” (aka The Forest and The Zoo), c.1963. oil on canvas. 62 1/4" x 51 1/2". Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY. (“La Caprice” was inspired by an etching from “Los Caprichos” by Francisco de Goya.)

Many major U.S. art museums — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum and others — include his paintings in their collections.

Yet, in Thompson’s hometown of Louisville, he is relatively unknown and his art is scarce.

The Hite Art Institute wants to reintroduce the artist and former UofL student to Louisville with an exhibit at the Cressman Center for Visual Arts.

“Seeking Bob Thompson: Dialogue/Object” opens to the public Oct. 20 and runs through Nov. 24. Gallery director and exhibit curator John Begley and co-curator Slade Stumbo, a curatorial master’s candidate, will give a gallery talk Friday, Nov. 2, at 6:30 p.m. in conjunction with the First Friday Trolley Hop. Admission to both the exhibit and the talk is free and open to the public.

“The city needs to understand for its own sense of self, the contributions made to the wider world by its citizens, particularly its African American ones, as well as honor and respect achievements that are models for future young artists from here,” said Begley of the exhibit’s purpose.

Thompson had a short life and career. He attended art classes in Louisville from 1956 to 1958. In 1957 he received an Allen R. Hite Art Scholarship and was among the first African Americans to be admitted to the university. At his teachers’ urging, he spent the summer of 1958 with fellow artists in Provincetown, Mass. That marked his break with Louisville. Thompson left school and moved to New York in early 1959 to meet up with friends from his Provincetown summer. Later he lived in France, Ibiza and Italy.

Although successful as a member of the New York figurative expressionist movement, he was only beginning to be recognized in Louisville before his death in 1966 at the age of 29, Stumbo said.

In his brief career, however, he painted more than 1,000 pieces – many of them monumental in size. That commitment to hard work is among the attributes young artists should emulate, Begley said.

They also should learn from his strength of pursuit and from his individuality.

An expressionist painter, Thompson was not willing to follow the dominant style of the period – abstract expressionism, Begley said. Instead, his works, described as combining rich color and abstract figures, blend the historical imagery of European art — Nicolas Poussin and Francisco de Goya — and contain expressions of his racial experiences.

“Thompson is an important figure in American art of the 20th century,” Stumbo said, noting that he and others in his circle “might be viewed as the avant-garde, one that leads to much of what is being produced in the art world today.”

“Louisville can be quite proud that one of the leading figures in this movement was Bob Thompson, one of our own,” Stumbo said.

The Cressman Center for Visual Arts at First and Main streets in Louisville, is open Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.–3 p.m. and First Fridays, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. It will be closed Thanksgiving Day.

“Seeking Bob Thompson” is part of the Hite Institute’s celebration of the Department of Fine Arts' 75th anniversary.

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