Skip to main content

Bob Thompson papers, 1949-2005

Bob Thompson papers, 1949-2005

Thompson, Bob (Robert Louis), 1937-1966

Painter

This site provides access to the papers of Bob (Robert Louis) Thompson in the Archives of American Art that were digitized in 2017, and total 1,887 images.

Funding for the digitization of this collection was provided by The Walton Family Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Collection Information

Size: 2 linear feet

Summary: The papers of New York African American figurative painter Bob Thompson measure 2 linear feet and date from 1949 to 2005. The collection includes biographical material, videocassettes, correspondence, writings by Bob Thompson and others, exhibition files, scattered personal business records, printed material, photographs, and photograph albums. The correspondence is mostly between Carol Thompson, the artist's wife, and others concerning Bob Thompson's artwork.

Biographical/Historical Note

Bob Thompson (1937-1966) was an African American figurative painter who worked primarily in New York City.

Provenance

The collection was donated by Elaine Plenda, the artist's sister-in-law, in 2006, 2010, 2011, and 2012.

Funding

Funding for the digitization of this collection was provided by The Walton Family Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.

A Finding Aid to the Bob Thompson Papers, 1949-2005, in the Archives of American Art
AAA.thombob
Author
Finding aid prepared by Kimberley Henze and Rihoko Ueno
Biographical/Historical note
Bob Thompson (1937-1966) was an African American figurative painter who worked primarily in New York City.
Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1937. He attended Boston University as a pre-med student, but quit the program and returned to Kentucky to attend the University of Louisville and study painting under German expressionist artist Ulfert Wilke. As a student, he spent a summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts and immersed himself in the art communities there. In 1958, Thompson moved to New York City and reunited with several artists he had met in Provincetown and participated in some of the earliest "happenings," somewhat informal art events or gatherings usually involving performance art and music, in 1960. He became a regular at the jazz clubs The Five Spot and Slugs and became friends with several jazz musicians. Many of Thompson's paintings reflect his interest in jazz. He also formed friendships with writers Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones. In 1960, he had his first solo exhibition at the Delancy Street Museum.
The same year as his first solo exhibition, Thompson married Carol Plenda and the couple lived in Paris from 1961-1962 after he received a Whitney Foundation fellowship. They lived in Ibiza, Spain the following year. Thompson painted prolifically while abroad, and when he returned to New York City in 1963, he brought many paintings with him. He quickly found representation by Martha Jackson Gallery and the gallery featured Thompson's work in solo exhibitions in 1963-1965. His reputation grew and more exhibitions across the country followed.
In late 1965, Thompson and his wife traveled to Rome, Italy, where he continued to study art and paint. Thompson died in Rome in 1966 at the age of 28 from a drug overdose not long after receiving gall bladder surgery.
Arrangement note
The collection is arranged as 7 series.
Series 1: Biographical Material, 1953-2003 (0.2 linear feet; Box 1)
Series 2: Carol Thompson's Correspondence, 1971-2000 (0.1 linear feet; Box 1)
Series 3: Writings, 1949-1998 (0.1 linear feet; Box 1)
Series 4: Exhibition Files, 1978-2001 (0.1 linear feet; Box 1)
Series 5: Personal Business Records, 1965-2001 (0.1 linear feet; Box 1)
Series 6: Printed Material, 1960-2005 (0.7 linear feet; Boxes 1-2, 4, OV 5)
Series 7: Photographs, 1951-2000 (0.7 linear feet; Boxes 2-4)
Scope and Contents note
The papers of New York African American figurative painter Bob Thompson measure 2 linear feet and date from 1949 to 2005. The collection includes biographical material, videocassettes, correspondence, writings by Bob Thompson and others, exhibition files, scattered personal business records, printed material, photographs, and photograph albums. The correspondence is mostly between Carol Thompson, the artist's wife, and others concerning Bob Thompson's artwork.
Biographical material includes certificates, school memorabilia, biographical chronologies, a memorial program and obituaries, and a transcript of “Bob Thompson: His Life and Friendships” panel discussion with several notable artists commenting on Thompson. There is also a video recording copy of a 1965 film by Dorothy Levitt Beskind titled
Bob Thompson Happening
which was made to accompany a 1999 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art.
Carol Thompson's correspondence is with various galleries, dealers, and friends primarily concerning Bob Thompson's artwork and posthumous exhibitions. There is correspondence with art historian Judith Wilson, the artist's mother Bessie Thompson, David Anderson Gallery, and Donald Morris Gallery.
Writings by Bob Thompson include church speeches, a letter to the editor of
Louisville Courier Journal
, a poem, and an artist statement. There are also writings about Thompson by others, including his mother Bessie Thompson, wife Carol Thompson, and artists and friends, including Margaret Bridwell, Dario Covi, Carl Crodel, Emilio Cruz, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Mary H. Martin, Mary Spencer May, Carter Ratcliff, Meyer Schapiro, A. B. Spellman, Ulfert Wilke, and Ken Young. The writings by friends are mostly in the form of recollections by friends that were gathered as a memorial tribute to Thompson.
Exhibition files consist of material related to posthumous group and solo exhibitions of Bob Thompson's work.
The majority of the personal business records are posthumous and include inventories, loan and consignment forms, sales and appraisal records, and scattered correspondence.
Printed material includes exhibition catalogs, magazine and newspaper clippings about Bob Thompson, blank postcards of artwork, posters, and press releases.
There are photographs of Bob Thompson, family, and friends, including many artists, shot in various locations in New York City and Provincetown, as well as in Spain, France, and Italy. There are images of Thompson's Rivington Street studio, the Billiard Palace and the Slugs Jazz Club in New York City, exhibitions, events, street scenes, and artwork. There are four photographs albums, one of the Thompson's wedding, two of exhibitions (one is disbound), and one personal album with many photographs of friends and family, including the artist’s mother Bessie Thompson and wife Carol Thompson.
Provenance
The collection was donated by Elaine Plenda, the artist's sister-in-law, in 2006, 2010, 2011, and 2012.
Processing Information note
The papers were initially organized by Carol Thompson, Bob Thompson's wife. Upon arrival at the Archives, the collection was processed to a minimal level, and a finding aid was prepared by intern Kimberley Henze in 2015. The collection was fully processed and prepared for digitization by Rihoko Ueno in 2017 with funding provided by The Walton Family Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Additional Forms Available

The bulk of the collection was digitized in 2017 and is available on the Archives of American Art's website. Materials which have not been scanned include blank pages, blank versos of of photographs, and duplicates. In some cases, exhibition catalogs and other publications have had their covers, title pages, and relevant pages scanned. Additional digital content, such as digital user copies of sound and video recordings, may also be available for use at Archives of American Art offices.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C. Research Center. Use of video recording requires advance notice. Contact Reference Services for more information.

Restrictions on Use

"Bob Thompson Happening" (1965), duplicate video of 16 mm motion picture film Available for on-site research only. Permission for reproduction must be made to Joanne Elkin, daughter of the filmmaker; jelkin@treadwellfarm.com

How to Cite This Collection

Bob Thompson papers, 1949-2005. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

  • No downloads available