Search for the Unicorn:
Jan Müller & Bob Thompson
at Lori Bookstein Fine Art
Seen as an ensemble, this is a handsome exhibition, particularly
so for those sympathetic to the expressionist idiom on view.
Taken one by one, the paintings are uneven but remain compelling
because of the glimpse they offer into a particular cultural
moment and the phenomenon of artistic influence.
The moment was Provincetown in the 1950s. Hans Hofmann
was the axis of centrifugal force among young painters who
actually studied with him and those who were disciples of
the scene. Jan Müller, a German emigré, studied
at the Hans Hofmann School from 1945-50. He died in 1958,
at the age of thirty-six, from a severe heart condition. Six
months later, the twenty-one year old Bob Thompson, an African
American from Kentucky, arrived in Provincetown. His subsequent
friendship with Müllers widow resulted in Thompsons
immersion in the expressionist-figurative style of Müllers
work as well as that of other habitués of the local
Of the twenty-eight paintings here, all but three are from
private collectors. Most were originally purchased directly
from the artists and, so, have not been available for public
Although they never met, the two men are presented as kindred
creative souls. On the evidence of what is here, however,
the affinity seems to be measured largely by their equal drives
for hard-living, with Thompson the less disciplined, more
derivative artist of the two. Müllers own work
was nourished by recognition, tilting toward jubilant homage,
of the longue durée. Thompsons was fueled
by the myth of himself as the visual equivalent of a jazz
musician. More on this later.
Müller was in the front ranks of second-generation Abstract
Expressionist painters who made the then-gutsy shift from
pure abstraction to some reclamation of the figure. A deep
attraction to Mondrian kept him alive to the dangers inherent
in composing non-figurative fields. How does one compose
or judge the balance of elements without the queries and obligations
of likenesses? Müller settled the dilemma by choosing
to maintain the scaffolding figuration provided.
The choice carries with it a decision about drawing. It is
in the arena of this attending resolve that Müllers
painting is unsatisfying. Too many of his figures tend to
be brutish reductions, an unpleasant contrast to the landscape
forms he abstracted more successfully.
No one should miss the glorious little panel Grove, Autumn,
1955. Suggestive of August Macke in form and coloration, the
painting is built like a wall from solid strokes of pigment.
Symmetry of forms a colonnade of trees on either side
of a garden path is off-set by asymmetrical distribution
of blues and greens, broken at carefully gauged intervals
by bursts of yellow and red-orange. It is hung in a cluster
of small paintings that surround Müllers five-panel
depiction of the Faust legend. Again, color is wonderful,
broody and nocturnal. The figures achieve credibility because,
however loosely rendered, they are immediately recognizable
by the bowed postures of fear, grief and abandonment common
to Renaissance scenes of hell. Luca Signorellis fifteenth-century
interpretation of Dantes Divine Comedy finds
its echo here in a modern, minor key.
Compare these two with Les Girls, 1957 or Phantom
Riders, 1957. The figures here are incoherent, daubs of
dime-store primitivism to make the ghosts of German Expressionists
blush. Horses and dogs by both Müller and Thompson are
unequal to the pictorial demand made on them. Christian Rohlfs
was carrying off such motifs more convincingly forty years
Thompson had a gift for emulating the styles and stylistic
devices (such as the black bowler characteristic of Lester
Johnsons work) of the painters he partied with. Without
checking the wall tags, it is frequently difficult to tell
who painted what.
Thompsons Rider, 1958, is weak in precisely
the same way as Müllers Les Girls and could
have been painted by the same hand. Untitled (Nude and
Dogs), 1959, remarkable for its haunting green tonality,
suffers the same raw immaturity of form as anything by Müller
at his thinnest. The most satisfying of these early pieces
are those in which Thompsons improvisations are constrained
and girded by reference to something stricter. His 1960 pastel,
Untitled, an engaging curtsy to Seurat and Monet, is
Thompsons painting can be called "visual jazz"
only if you adopt H.L. Menckens description of jazz
as "undifferentiated musical protoplasm" that he
dismissed as "crude and childish." On the evidence
of the work together with the promotional brochures
emphasis on Saturnalian excess, one suspects that Thompsons
real interest lay less in any art form than in the boozy,
breakneck tempo of the incorrigible life styles of jazz players.
As music critic and jazz bassist Terry Teachout observed:
"When F. Scott Fitzgerald titled one of his collections
of short stories Tales of the Jazz Age, it was the
sex life of flappers not the music of Louis Armstrong
about which he knew nothing that he had in mind."
The phrase "visual jazz" is a rhetorical conceit
that obscures weaknesses in a haze of sentimental notions
about spontaneity or something called "gestural honesty."
It is hard to know what gestural dishonesty might be but inflated
claims are obvious enough. There are no technical innovations
in Thompsons work, no contributions to the language
of painting. Where to look to find the visual equivalent of
Charlie Parkers four-bar break? Dizzy Gillespies
chord progressions? Find painterly parallels to the harmonic
inventions of Duke Ellington, Bix Biederbecke or pianist Art
Tatum. And what kind of jazz are we referring to? Chicago-style?
30s combo? stride or bebop? 50s "cool"
school of jazz?
It is a long walk from rhetoric to reality.
The gallerys press release suggests that Thompson,
in a supposed progression of painters balancing gestural abstraction
with figuration, is the successor of Milton Avery. Because
painter and Provincetown friend Jay Milder said it, does not
make it so. Look up Milton Avery the great figurative
paintings from the 40s and 50s. Seated
Blond, 1946, or Nude Combing Hair, 1954, are good
points of reference. With these held clear in the minds
eye, no one needs to be told whether Thompson is the successor
to Avery or a satellite.