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 1950’s. 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 Müller’s widow resulted in Thompson’s immersion in the expressionist-figurative style of Müller’s work as well as that of other habitués of the local art scene.

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 viewing.

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. Müller’s own work was nourished by recognition, tilting toward jubilant homage, of the longue durée. Thompson’s 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 Müller’s 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 Müller’s 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 Signorelli’s fifteenth-century interpretation of Dante’s 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 earlier.

Thompson had a gift for emulating the styles and stylistic devices (such as the black bowler characteristic of Lester Johnson’s work) of the painters he partied with. Without checking the wall tags, it is frequently difficult to tell who painted what.

Thompson’s Rider, 1958, is weak in precisely the same way as Müller’s 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 Thompson’s improvisations are constrained and girded by reference to something stricter. His 1960 pastel, Untitled, an engaging curtsy to Seurat and Monet, is one them.

Thompson’s painting can be called "visual jazz" only if you adopt H.L. Mencken’s description of jazz as "undifferentiated musical protoplasm" that he dismissed as "crude and childish." On the evidence of the work together with the promotional brochure’s emphasis on Saturnalian excess, one suspects that Thompson’s 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 Thompson’s work, no contributions to the language of painting. Where to look to find the visual equivalent of Charlie Parker’s four-bar break? Dizzy Gillespie’s 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? ‘30’s combo? stride or bebop? ‘50’s "cool" school of jazz?

It is a long walk from rhetoric to reality.

The gallery’s 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 ‘40’s and ‘50s. Seated Blond, 1946, or Nude Combing Hair, 1954, are good points of reference. With these held clear in the mind’s eye, no one needs to be told whether Thompson is the successor to Avery or a satellite.


December 1999

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