Mildred Thompson: Throughlines, Assemblages and Works on Paper from the 1960s to the 1990s
On ViewGalerie Lelong & Co.
February 18 – March 27, 2021
Cultural reckonings are mandatory across the board to bring into light the innumerable, invaluable contributions by individuals of color to every aspect of life and culture. This is glaringly obvious when walking through the late Mildred Thompson’s exhibition of wood reliefs and sculptures, the artist’s second solo show mounted by Galerie Lelong. Mildred Thompson: Throughlines, Assemblages and Works on Paper from the 1960s to the 1990s cracks the veneer of the 20th century, modernist canon to highlight a little-known body of work by an African American abstract artist who, in spite of being overlooked and criticized for her race, gender, and style, remained resolute in her vision.
Compelled by an indefatigable quest for knowledge into the mysteries of the universe, Thompson studied quantum physics, cosmology, theosophy, and music which fed her constantly evolving, deeply personal language of abstraction. Her first exhibition at Lelong featured abstract paintings and works on paper from the early 1990s with symphonies of line, marks, and color that simultaneously depicted galaxies of matter in deep space and microscopic particles. The current show focuses on Thompson’s remarkably distinctive works in wood that span three decades from the ’60s to the ’90s. It is interesting to view them in relation to assemblage reliefs and sculptures compiled with found materials and objects in the ’50s and ’60s, or the sculptures of Louise Nevelson whom she met and was inspired by while working in a studio on the Bowery in 1962. Nevelson’s influence is decipherable in Thompson’s monochromatic, hieratic wall pieces comprised of smaller components, but her works tell a completely different story. Thompson began working with wood in the Bowery studio, using segments of fruit crates and boxes with their “Made in Taiwan” stamps and commercial labels. Moving to Germany in 1964 because of the racial and gender discrimination she was experiencing in NYC, Thompson sourced the wood in the forests near where she was staying. She experimented with found wood assemblages and composed them as installations nailed to trees around the property. The earliest wood works at Lelong are installed in the side gallery along with two etchings and a suite of breathtaking, delicate paper collages with cut strips of white and natural paper layered in abstract configurations. Stele (ca. 1963), the earliest sculpture, is a freestanding, meter-high work composed of stacked rectangular wood elements that Thompson cut and left natural in color, save for two groups painted in primary colors. The other four Wood Pictures in this room are astonishingly inventive wall reliefs constructed with natural, rough-hewn wood components. One, from 1967, is particularly compelling with three rows of ten, protruding vertical elements—similar, but not identical—lined up with spaces in between through which bright color can be glimpsed. In all of the pieces, diverse shapes and sections of wood come together into an eccentric but genuine sense of a whole. By amassing pieces that, in Thompson’s own words, “do not fit together,” she made poetry through “abstract compositions that proposed new ways that humanity might relate to the natural world as well as to one another.”
The walls of the main gallery are lined with a series from circa 1975 called Zylo-Probe. In these, Thompson combined found and machine-cut wood segments to make works unlike anything being done at the time. More refined, contained, and geometric than her ’60swall works, they seem almost classical in their flat compositions of cut vertical and horizontal segments. They are like paintings where support, surface, and composition coalesce into images defined by the naturally expressive wood grain patterns and knots themselves. The combination of the wood’s intrinsic lines, circles, and color; the concomitant, commercial stamps; and the joining of parts into a whole create a very physical, immediate experience while evoking abstract notions of time, history, and universality.
Thompson continued her explorations in wood when she returned to the United States in the late ’70s, and the exhibition features several installations of freestanding wood sculptures from the ’70s–’90s. A cluster of five tall, slender, and elegantly crafted works recalling Louise Bourgeois’s Personages are noteworthy in their upward, linear movement, their openness, and wry figurative and musical associations. Three smaller wood sculptures that Thompson worked on between the late ’70s and early ’90s hit the high notes of modern masters such as Henry Moore and David Smith even as they assert themselves on their own, inventive terms. The final group of works from the late ’90s are curiously less refined in terms of finish and crafting. The linear wood members are joined together, not seamlessly with glue or nails, but with plainly visible metal hinges that bring attention to their matter-of-fact construction. Coming full circle from Thompson’s earliest experiments in wood, these pieces are reminders of how different things and people can come together in an imperfect, but, certainly, workable whole—and that is okay.