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Finding Their Roots

Two African-American painters who turned to Europe for inspiration -- and found a home away from home.

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Everyone knows the story of the modern painter who struggles on the margins, an exile from the broader culture of his or her time. Imagine, then, the position of a sophisticated African-American painter and modernist before, say, 1970. Talk about marginal. The situation in literature and music was somewhat better, for an ambitious black artist could at least depend upon the knowledge that other African-Americans had already made major contributions to these fields. In painting, few such examples existed: The aloneness of the black painter was stark. Two shows now in the New York area -- a large retrospective of Bob Thompson's art at the Whitney Museum of American art and a small exhibit of William Johnson's work at the Montclair Art Museum -- pointedly convey this peculiarly American struggle to find a home in the high-modernist tradition.

Although they came from very different generations -- Johnson was born in 1901 and Thompson in 1937 -- the two artists have much in common. Both were born in the South and came to New York to pursue art. Both enjoyed some early success. Johnson received a scholarship that allowed him to travel to Europe in the twenties. Thompson, who hung around with the Beats, had a show at the Martha Jackson Gallery when he was only 23 that was a succès d'estime. Both artists also stopped painting at an early age. Thompson died of a drug overdose in Rome when he was 29; Johnson had a mental breakdown in his mid-forties and passed most of the rest of his life in a mental hospital in Islip. Among other things, each artist, despite his achievement, represents one of the great losses -- one of the important what-ifs -- of American art.

But it's their likeness in sensibility that's really striking. Both were abidingly restless -- and each spent much of his working life abroad. Many other Americans of the time also went to Europe, of course, typically to search out the newest strains of modernism. For Johnson and Thompson, however, the idea of the European tradition seemed more personal, almost familial. It was for them a matter of the old no less than the new. Europe became a foundation stone, even a point of reverence -- a way, perhaps, to establish a past that could work in the present. (It was often easier to be a black American artist in Europe than in America.) In different ways, each depended upon this tradition to provide the framework for a visionary style that spoke to his experience as a black American.

Johnson married a Danish weaver and spent most of his adult years in Denmark and Norway. He greatly admired the deeply settled culture of the fishing villages where he lived. He planned to remain abroad all his life; only the approach of World War II forced him back to New York. Although he is best known for the work he made after his return to the United States in the late thirties, the exhibition in Montclair, which was organized by the Steve Turner Gallery in Los Angeles, focuses upon art Johnson made abroad. (The late work in this show does not convey the strength of his American period.) Early on, Johnson was influenced by the rippling forms of Soutine. But this Southerner first came into his own as a northern Expressionist in the tradition of Edvard Munch. A bracing, icy-blue clarity suffuses his shimmering still lifes, portraits, and landscapes from the mid- and late thirties. A cool light that conveys heat. You can see the emerging intensities of pattern -- the passion for waving, pulsing lines that owes something to both Denmark and Africa -- that would characterize the "blacker" work made in America.

Bob Thompson -- whose retrospective was put together by Thelma Golden, Judith Wilson, and the artist's widow, Carol Plenda Thompson -- worked in a more welcoming era than Johnson did. American art was becoming widely popular; European art seemed to be in decline; racism, at least in advanced circles, was diminishing. Yet Thompson's painting is anything but relaxed. He never yielded to the "go with the flow" sixties or to the ironic coolness of art after Abstract Expressionism. From the first, he had a dreamy, heated imagination filled with mysterious birds, deep shadows, nightmarish creatures, and an array of rainbow-colored figures. His friend Allen Ginsberg called him "the most original visionary painter of his days sic, a first natural American psychedelic colorist." The example of jazz, which was particularly important to Thompson, inspired him to trust his own "voice" and to improvise without fear.

As with Johnson, however, part of the internal pressure in Thompson's work comes from his restless search for the rootedness of tradition. He is too strong an artist to think that playing his own horn is enough; the melody, as most great jazz musicians know, is necessary to the improvisation. Thompson would take some of the legendary melodies of the canon -- from Tintoretto, Poussin, Piero della Francesca -- and sometimes use them to enrich, challenge, and provoke his own heated fantasies. In An Allegory, for example, the composition invokes the sublime order of classical art. But the color is molten and the shapes yearn for the sky, as do the birds around the figures. There is an intense blush in the bodies, a kind of ecstatic too-muchness, as if feelings could no longer be hidden and every nuance had its hue. The artist made a particular red his own.

Thompson was still finding his way at the time of his death. But he was getting stronger and stronger and from the first had his own style. Today, it would be very difficult for a black artist to work in a similar way or approach the European tradition with the same passion. The rise of powerful separatist strains in black thought in the late sixties and the corroding of idealistic social hopes locked the dreams of a Johnson or a Thompson into a distant age. They chose not to protect themselves with irony or cynicism. They did not parody earlier achievements. Like all visionaries, they instead dreamed of oneness -- of those ecstatic moments when there are no necessary boundaries and past and present become one.


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