“I paint many paintings that tell me slowly that I have something inside of me that is just bursting, twisting, sticking, spilling over to get out. Out into souls and mouths and eyes that have never seen before.” –Bob Thompson
Eight years. 1000 works.
Such was the brief yet remarkable career of painter Bob Thompson.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky on June 26, 1937, Thompson was encouraged by his educated parents, particularly his mother, a schoolteacher who instilled the value of education in her children. He was further influenced by relatives who exposed him to art and jazz.
When Thompson was 13, his father was tragically killed in an automobile accident. The teen was shattered and became deeply depressed, and his mother would subsequently send him to Boston to live with his older sister. At some point during these tough teenage years, the struggling Thompson developed the drug habit that would continue to impact his life.
After a brief stint as a pre-med student at Boston University, Thompson returned to his home state and to the University of Louisville where he studied painting under several German expressionist painters. He was heavily influenced by the figurative expressionism of Jan Muller, and took to heart the late Muller’s admonition to never “look for your solutions among the work of your contemporaries — look at Old Masters.”’
In 1958, Thompson relocated to New York City and embedded himself in the legendary arts and social scene, making friendships with such musicians and writers as Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, Allen Ginsberg, and LeRoi Jones. His first solo exhibition was held at the Delancey Street Museum, and then his two-man exhibition with Jay Milder was presented by the influential Zabriskie Gallery. In 1961, while struggling with drug addiction, Thompson and his new wife, Carol, traveled to Europe. There, they spent a year in France on a Walter Gutman Foundation grant and then a year in Ibiza, Spain on a John Hay Whitney grant before returning to New York in 1963 with a large number of new works.
Thompson enjoyed strong commercial success for several years in the 1960s with major exhibitions of his prolific work. He was considered one of the brightest lights of the competitive New York art scene.
Sadly, in May 1966, following emergency gall bladder surgery and years of heroine abuse, Bob Thompson died at the young age of 29 while visiting Rome, Italy.
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