Bob Thompson, prescient narrativeby Joel Shapiro
It was as a graduate student in an art history class taught by Irving Sandler that I became familiar with 10th Street painting. Bob Thompson’s work stood out—it was vibrant and immediate. My interest was subsequently reinforced when I met Ellen Phelan and her friend Susanne Hilberry, who were both involved with the work through the Morris Gallery in Detroit. Paula Cooper—who had shown the work during the Paula Johnson days—had a beautiful, very replete gouache, which I bought or traded for. It had a level of emotionality that to some extent corresponded with my own fears and ambitions, and the nature of some of my earliest shows.
Thompson’s painting was the antithesis of what was being exhibited in most of the galleries, where Pop, Color Field painting, and Minimalism were dominant. I was young and trying to come to terms with my own art, investigating process, questioning certain aspects of Minimalism, and exploring the possibility of figuration. I was intrigued by the work’s vividness as well as its re-contextualization of renaissance painting, the blunt cooption of imagery with little detail. He made the old masters immediate and current—no longer ecclesiastical but ecstatic, and occasionally frightening. L’Execution (1961), a small painting based on Fra Angelico’s Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian, elevates the kneeling saint about to be decapitated into a lynching victim. Beheaded figures are still on the ground and a group of people are watching, unmoved by the horror before them.
Joel Shapiro is an artist. He lives in New York.