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Speed Art Museum acquires Bob Thompson painting
Renowned Louisville native’s “Self Portrait in the Studio” a rare reflection of the artist at work.

LOUISVILLE, KY.- The Speed Art Museum announced the acquisition of its first oil painting by Bob Thompson, Self Portrait in the Studio, a Louisville native who took the art world by storm during the 1950s and 1960s and became one of the most respected African-American artists of the late 20th Century. The painting is currently on view in the Speed’s North Building second floor contemporary gallery.

“The acquisition of a major Bob Thompson painting has been a goal of the Speed Art Museum for years,” said Miranda Lash, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Art Museum. “Thompson, along with the great Sam Gilliam, is one of Louisville’s most important artists. Both artists emerged out of segregated Louisville in the late 1950s and early 1960s and went on to transform our understanding of contemporary painting in different ways. Thompson’s Self Portrait provides a unique glimpse into the identity of an artist who came from Kentucky and went on to create a splash in the New York art world at a remarkably young age.”

A prolific and groundbreaking artist, Thompson created figurative, often fantastical paintings in the 1950s and 1960s inspired by the compositions and colors of Old Master paintings. Although he painted for only eight years, he made an indelible mark on painting in the United States.

Self Portrait in the Studio is a rare example of a Thompson self-portrait in oil. One of only a handful of works in which we see Thompson’s likeness, Self Portrait also reveals a different side to the artist. “Seated, eyes closed, in a moment of stillness, the painting evokes a sense of solitude and contemplation,” explained Lash. “Alone in the studio, he contemplates his work and his practice.” Painted in his Clinton Street studio in New York City, the work captures the artist within two years of departing Louisville. Self Portrait captures the artist amidst his paintings, with a snare drum and conga drum (emblematic of his love of jazz music) by his side.

Born in Louisville in 1937, Bob Thompson attended Central High School in Louisville and was a student at the University of Louisville’s Hite Art Institute from 1957 to 1958. In 1958, Thompson banded together with a group of young African American artists including the then University of Louisville graduate student Sam Gilliam and the undergraduate student Robert Douglas (among others) to form an artist group called Gallery Enterprises, which went on to host meetings, poetry readings, and live “painting” performances. Thompson moved to New York City in 1959 and immersed himself in the downtown Beat scene. He had his first one-man show in 1960 at the Delancey Street Museum, an early site for Red Grooms’s “happenings.” In 1961, he received a Walter Gutman Foundation Grant which enabled him to travel through Europe to study the works of the Old Masters. He was awarded a John Hay Whitney Fellowship in 1962, which enabled him to continue his sojourn through Paris and Ibiza, Spain.

Returning to New York City in 1962, Thompson spent the next three years painting furiously, exhibiting solo at multiple prestigious galleries, and gaining gallery representation in several large cities in the U.S. He traveled to Italy in 1965. He underwent an emergency gallbladder surgery in 1966 and died in Rome two months after, just a few weeks before his twenty-ninth birthday.

“Bob Thompson was an explosive force in the art world during his tragically short life, yet he remains far better known in New York than in his own hometown,” said Stephen Reily, Director, Speed Art Museum. “We are delighted to begin reversing that history, especially with a self-portrait that reminds us all that a young boy from West Louisville can reach the highest levels of artistic fame and appreciation.”

Thompson’s work has only grown in importance since his untimely death. In 1969, the New School Art Center organized a retrospective of his work, which was followed by a memorial exhibition at the Speed Art Museum in 1971. Solo exhibitions have since been held at the University Art Gallery of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1974, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC in 1975, and The Studio Museum in Harlem in 1978. In 1998, the Whitney Museum of American Art organized a major traveling retrospective exhibition curated by Thelma Golden. In 2012 the Hite Art Institute at the University of Louisville organized the solo Seeking Thompson: Dialogue/Object.

Museum collections across the country have acquired Thompson’s paintings, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Speed owns one watercolor by Thompson, Untitled (Yellow Nude), 1961, (Gift from the Adele and Leonard Leight Collection).

Self Portrait in the Studio was purchased by the Museum through the Alice Speed Stoll Accessions Fund and funds generously donated by Ambassador Matthew Barzun and Brooke Brown Barzun, Greg Brown and Scott Rogers, John S. and Mary Moss Greenebaum, and Alfred Shands.

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