MILDRED THOMPSON: Radiation Explorations and Magnetic Fields
GALERIE LELONG & CO. | FEBRUARY 22 – APRIL 21, 2018
If a late Kandinsky and a Fauve-era Matisse had had a love child, and fed it growth hormones, it might look something like Mildred Thompson’s (1936 – 2003) pulsating abstractions from the 1990s. The exhibition combines two series, Radiation Explorations, from the mid 90s, and Magnetic Fields, from the early 90s. They are closely connected thematically. These paintings and pastels—with their vibrant color, kinetic drawing, and, in the paintings, thick surfaces—suggest energetic processes ranging from the quantum level, through the biological, to the cosmic. They amount to a full-throated affirmation of early abstraction’s promise of a spiritual Esperanto, which would connect all of humanity to a shared ground of experience. Her personal history as a woman of color, and the barriers that she had to overcome as a consequence of who she was, only add to the universal resonance of these life-affirming works.
Born into the Jim Crow South of 1930s Jacksonville, FL, she gained a foothold in the New York art world of the early 60s, with the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art adding her work to their collections. However, she was unable to secure gallery representation—in fact Galerie Lelong is her first official gallery affiliation. To avoid the racism and sexism that held her back in America, she spent most of her time in Europe, until she settled down in Atlanta in the ’80s to pursue a career as a professor of art until she retired in 2000. The paintings and pastels in Radiation and Magnetic Fields are from her late works, part of a larger body from that period that includes sculpture and prints.
The works of the Magnetic Fields series (1990-1992), which include a handful of pastels, all share vivid yellow grounds. Typical of this group, the painting, Magnetic Fields, 1990, oscillates between saffron and pale lemon, and has a much larger feeling of scale than its approximated five feet by four feet dimensions would suggest. In the top half, concentric red lines whirl around an implied center spinning off blue and orange color darts. Beneath the orb, more red lines form an undulating pattern that softens the angularity of the shafts emanating from above. The whole composition could be a landscape, a cross-section of a galaxy, or a close-up of cells at work. What comes through unambiguously is the intensity of Thompson’s temperament, which binds together these fissile elements—line, color, and movement—through force of will.
On the other hand, the Radiation Explorations series (1994) are all paintings, which share blue grounds ranging from cobalt, to ultramarine, to indigo, often with green mixed in. These works are much larger, and in some we feel Thompson pushing to her limits. The diptych Radiation Explorations 8, 1994, for example, is one wild ride. Roughly divided into three horizontal bands, it packs in an unbelievable amount of activity while still managing to land a real visual punch. In the top third, a hail of orange dashes rains down on the center band, which features colliding white balls exploding into white arcs. In the bottom third, at left, is a jagged orange outlining a white-hot plume of fire—maybe the jet trail of a rocket hurtling through space. Here again we see Thompson exercising sheer willpower to keep the entire image from disintegrating, this time with even greater disparities of drawing and color—bravura in the service of, as Thompson once put it, “a personal interpretation of the universe.”
Did Thompson’s personal experience impact her interpretation of the universalizing language of abstraction, or to put it another way, does a woman of color, a double outlier in the art world, necessarily approach abstraction differently from a white male? Thompson’s work appeared in Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today, a show that just closed in January at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in DC. Magnetic Fields included abstract art by several generations of black women. The title of Mary Lovelace O’Neal’s painting, Racism is Like Rain, Either It’s Raining or It’s Gathering Somewhere (1993) does explicitly address racial justice, but the image does not. Similarly, in the rest of the images from the catalog of Magnetic Fields, there seem no clear connections either. Yet, doesn’t the knowledge of the barriers these women faced impact our sense of the work, and make their accomplishments all the more admirable? On another level, might the intense energy of Thompson’s vision result from her struggle to realize her vision in the teeth of indifference and even hostility? If that is the case, then the answer to the question at the top of this paragraph is a resounding YES.
is an artist and has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts Art Practice program. He is a frequent contributor to Artseen.