Bob Thompson died in 1966 at the age of 28, having spent less than a decade getting all he could out of the New York art scene and the great museums of Italy and France, and putting it to immediate use. Thompson was equally at home with the past and the present, equally at ease with abstraction and representation, with Christianity and mythology. He borrowed freely from Gauguin and Goya, Piero and Masaccio, Ensor and Munch to tell tales of sin and salvation, of love and violence. Monsters, winged creatures and masked faces abound in his art, yet he strove to be unquestionably contemporary, an ambition he shared with other figurative artists like Alex Katz, David Park, Lester Johnson and Red Grooms.
A black man in a largely white art world, Thompson gave his figures a rainbow of skin tones. Sometimes the artist seems to be simply applying the bright pastels of early Renaissance painting directly to his figures, not unlike a latter-day large-scale Fauve. Sometimes he seems to be wrestling, allegorically, with the demons of race and bias that afflicted his own time and country. This is perhaps clearest in the rougher, less resolved paintings from 1960 – in which the figures come in a range of hues that is intensely decorative yet feels true to life.1