Mildred Thompson was a wandering artist — across mediums, countries, and influences — devoted to finding and representing the cosmos. Her metaphysical pursuits and experiments in mixed media abstraction are surveyed in Throughlines: Assemblages and Works on Paper from the 1960s to the 1990s — the New York debut of her Wood Pictures at Galerie Lelong, where her first New York solo exhibition was likewise presented in 2018. The multicolored wooden sculptural assemblages and cubic, architectural works on paper are the aesthetic culmination of the lifeworlds that Thompson traversed.
Thompson earned a BA at Howard University in Washington DC and an MFA from the Art Academy of Hamburg before moving to New York in 1961 with the ambition of establishing her career there. In the middle of the Civil Rights movement, and faced with racism and sexism, she was unable to find gallery representation or adequate exhibition opportunities, later returning to self-imposed exile in Germany in 1964, where there were greater possibilities for African American artists. It was on the cusp of this transition, away from the discrimination of the US and towards a budding career in Europe, that Thompson began imagining and materializing her Wood Pictures.
Spread across two galleries, Throughlines is connected by a spacious hallway with displays of colorful silkscreens, such as “Untitled (No #1)” (1973). The silkscreen works recall the grid-like spatial mapping of a city, with blocks, streets, and buildings abstracted into orange, yellow, green, and purple lines of varying widths and lengths. Varying textures, shades, and shapes abound in Thompson’s assemblages. Some Wood Pictures are hung eye-level on the wall like a painting, while others are free-standing vertical sculptures. “Stele” (c. 1963) stretches 3 feet tall and less than a foot wide, with splashes of pinkish red, cerulean blue, and neon orange that boldly stand out against the natural colors of the wood.
The confounding nature of these sculptural, mixed media assemblages adds to the allure of Thompson’s artistic practice. She remained committed to abstraction throughout the Black Arts Movement, despite pressures to work with narrative subject matter addressing the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. While Thompson’s abstract paintings from the 1990s have gradually received more attention from the art world — amid renewed interest in African American abstraction — her Wood Pictures remain widely underrepresented in art historical writing, perhaps because they do not fit into linear art historical narratives. Critics have connected them to other art forms — namely West African sculpture and African American quilting — yet these comparisons fall short of tapping into the deep well of Thompson’s philosophy of abstraction.
As opposed to locating herself within a particular art historical movement, Thompson conceptualized her practice as metaphysical. She experimented with the visual forms of what she identified as universal patterns that exist throughout nature, music, architecture, and the world.
Thompson combined wood sourced from German forests with machine-cut wood segments, resulting in a tension between the naturally-occurring curvaceous lines in wood and those that were manufactured or painted. In merging visually different pieces of wood, she accentuated the asymmetry of the designs instead of imposing a strict grid-like format to create uniformity. Thompson was also a trained musician and instilled a sense of musicality throughout her works: some sculptures are shaped like abstracted musical instruments while others present a rhythmic flow through varied patterns.
The architectural silkscreens and sculptural wooden assemblages share Thompson’s cosmological vision — her intimate focus on the patterns, colors, and shapes of her environmental, musical, and political surroundings. It remains rather ironic that an artist who was so in tune with the flows of the universe and patterns of nature, posed such a fundamental challenge to mainstream art histories. Such universalist searches for the cosmos are often reserved for white male artists. Even when participating in pan-Africanist exhibitions such as the landmark FESTAC’77 and later on the 1991 Dak’Art Biennial, her work remained illegible to other Black creatives, including her former romantic partner, Audre Lorde, whom she grew closer to after meeting in Nigeria. Lorde questioned the coherence between a Black lesbian feminist political agenda and Thompson’s abstractionist formal practices.
In viewing these experimental works as a Black queer feminist art critic in 2021, I am conscious that Thompson’s own life as a Black queer woman was inseparable from her speculative work with materiality and the cosmos. Recent discourse on Black feminism and the cosmos, queer formalism, and other African-American avant-garde artists in self-imposed exile has paved the way for us to understand Blackness and queerness as aesthetically and politically multidimensional. Thompson’s eclectic practice gives rise to further explorations of how Black queer feminist subjectivity can manifest in aesthetic forms in ways that diverge from traditional art historical classifications. It may be that the opacity of the Wood Pictures is what makes them irrevocably Black and queer.
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Author: Alexandra M. Thomas