“So let us all be citizens” is a small but enlightening retrospective of painter Bob Thompson’s meteoric career, which ended prematurely on May 30, 1966—roughly a month before the artist’s twenty-ninth birthday. Deftly curated by 52 Walker’s Ebony L. Haynes, the show presents fourteen oil paintings, spanning 1960 to 1965, all of which have been loaned from private collections and museums. The works are strongly influenced by European masters: Fragonard, Gauguin, Poussin, Titian, as we see in a number of canvases, including The Swing, 1965, or Triumph of Bacchus, 1964. Such inspirations exude an ideal of artistic perfection as well as a hyperbolic vision of Arcadia—a world where injustice and cruelty don’t exist. This imaginary territory must have felt like a relieving fantasy for a young Black man who grew up in Kentucky during the Jim Crow era. How does one paint harmony or retain innocence, having experienced so much hate and brutality?
In these images, luminous beings undulate in pastoral settings, each radiating their own personal color while participating in cheerful group activities—or more destructive endeavors. Thompson’s use of light adds a soft poetic feel to these bucolic tableaux, which look like joyous celebrations of life’s fleeting moments. But hell is also very much present in several of Thompson’s canvases, as we see in The Execution, 1961, where a Black man is hung, blindfolded, and mutilated—a scene that calls to mind the lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, which occurred when the artist was a teenager. Because of their facelessness, the artist’s anonymous characters might initially strike one as innocent—yet their actions frequently reveal that they are anything but. Thompson synthesized historical European painting in remarkable ways. But his lush compositions never shied away from ugliness and pain: They offer a modern vision of a broken Arcadia.
— Alexandre Stipanovich