The first thing that happened was that my gaze was arrested by the relatively overworked white circular spiraling shape with a trompe l’oeil shadow in the center right. Then I recognized it as an effort to get something exactly right—and wondered why. It dawned on me that Thompson was painting the Cosmos—Outer Space, yes, the planets and the stars in motion but Inner Space, too—which is also vast, the world of atoms and the forces that hold them, us, everything, together.
I don’t think that any other painter has approached the subject in the same way. They would fall into a more familiar category if they were naive or visionary, but they aren’t. Or if they used the metaphors that physicists came up with to explain and visualize their theories: Einstein with the clocks and the trains, Schrodinger and the cat, etc. —but they don’t.
They really are very odd paintings. It’s clear they are based on a study of theoretical physics and astronomy—diagrams in a way, but with none of the static quality of a diagram. Elements are attracted to one another, pulled apart, line up, form waves, spark, release showers—all this in physical three dimensional space. The paintings make visible a world that exists, and we know that it does; we cannot actually see it but I guess most people have made an interior struggle to visualize it—and in that sense they are familiar.
They remind me of the joy and wonder that many scientists, poets and others have expressed on contemplating the heavens, and I feel grateful for that.
“The contemplation of celestial things will make a man both speak and think more sublimely and magnificently when he descends to human affairs.”
— Marcus Tullius Cicero, c. 30 BCE
“This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire.”
— Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2, William Shakespeare, c. 1600
“I love to revel in philosophical matters & especially astronomy. I study astronomy more than any other foolishness there is. I am a perfect slave to it. I am at it all the time. I have got more smoked glass than clothes. I am as familiar with the stars as the comets are. I know all the facts and figures and have all the knowledge there is concerning them. I yelp astronomy like a sun-dog, and paw the constellations like Ursa Major.”
— Mark Twain, letter to the San Francisco Alta California newspaper, 1 August 1869
Trying to figure out the very joyous palette, I even wondered whether the colors don’t refer quite literally to temperature.
When considering their dimensions (the largest is around 7’ by 11’), I started thinking about how even the smallest of the works portrays an infinite space.
Why is Thompson’s work not better known? Well, she was a woman and black and trying to interest New York galleries in her work in the 60s. Curators and collectors are the most racist sexist folks ever, but there is a bit more to it than that. The controllers of the Art World are very strict. Painting, starting perhaps with Abstract Expressionism, was supposed to be concerned with an internal narrative that includes neither visual observation nor painting like Thompson’s that connect with other areas of exploration.
Here is the Tate’s definition of abstract art:
“Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect.”
Thompson’s paintings are a kind of gestural abstraction but they do attempt to visualize reality.
Finally, that internal narration has worn thin. Also galleries realize it looks bad to be so uninclusive and not only will contemporary artists benefit from that but also undersung artists from the past (this might even include some white men!) and of course, the viewers.
A final word is that at a recent Artcritical discussion, a remark was made about art students having difficulty in finding a subject to paint. Not saying that it’s not hard, but the whole world is out there— everything is a subject for painting.
Mildred Thompson’s life ((March 12, 1936 – September 1, 2003) was a very interesting one, by the way—if you’d like to read it—link below to Wikipedia.