mary spencer nay

Painting

Legacy: Bob Thompson (1937-1966)

“Thompson was in a class nearly by himself in recognition in the world of art. Not until the emergence of Jean-Michel Basquait in the 1980s would another African-American be so embraced.” – from the African American Registry (AAReg).

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On March 1, Louisville Visual Art will award Vinhay Keo the 1st Annual Rising Star Award. The award is meant to recognize a young artist who seems poised to have a more widespread impact in the world of visual art. It honors the memory of Louisville-born artist Bob Thompson, and cites his career as an example of exactly what it might mean to be labeled, “rising star.”

Thompson was born in Louisville but came of age in Boston, where he had been sent to live with relatives after his father was killed in an automobile accident. He entered college as a pre-med student, but increasing depression over the loss of his father left him troubled and unsatisfied. Seeking to alleviate his grief, he returned home to enroll as an art student (with a scholarship) at the University of Louisville in 1956.

According to his entry in Smithsonian American Art Museum, his natural talent and enthusiasm prompted legendary U of L Professor Mary Spencer Nay to encourage him to spend a summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts:

“There were two important art schools in the old fishing village of Provincetown—the Seong Moy Art School and an older, more established institution under the direction of Hans Hofmann, the innovative abstract expressionist painter. One of Hofmann's students at that time was the young artist Jan Müller, who departed from Hofmann's aesthetic principles of nonobjective painting in favor of a figurative style.

Provincetown was an exciting environment for Thompson, and he was especially attracted to Müller's figural paintings and the works of Red Grooms, from Nashville, Tennessee. Grooms was also involved in performances that were later called "Happenings" and represented a new aesthetic concept. Thompson was an active participant in many of Grooms' productions.”

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Conventional wisdom for the Louisville artistic community has often held that you have to go elsewhere to “make it”, but Thompson’s story is more fluid than that canard. Coming home was clearly a crucial step in his life - its how he found his true path, yet it also was, in a very short time, the springboard for him to emerge again into the larger world of American Art.

He married Carol Plenda in 1960, and a Walter Gutman Foundation Grant and a John Hay Whitney Fellowship enabled them to spend the first two and-a-half years of their marriage in Europe. Upon their return, Thompson joined the Martha Jackson Gallery, where all of his exhibits made a sensation, and he sold consistently well: his work was purchased for the permanent collections of prominent museums like the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art.

Thompson’s paintings range from a large-scale, gestural abstract to a more figurative expressionism. He drew obvious inspiration from the old masters he had studied firsthand in Europe, forming compositions of biblical narratives and classical mythology rendered with an expressionist’s sense of form and color.

"Stairway to the Stars" by Bob Thompson c.1962, oil and photostat on Masonite, 40x60in, © Estate of Bob Thompson

"Stairway to the Stars" by Bob Thompson c.1962, oil and photostat on Masonite, 40x60in, © Estate of Bob Thompson

As part of the Hite Art Institute’s 75th Anniversary Celebration, the University of Louisville mounted an exhibit in 2012, Seeking Bob Thompson: Dialogue/Object, which was curated by Hite Art Institute Gallery Director John Begley (now retired), and Slade Stumbo, who at the time was finishing his Curatorial MFA at Hite.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC is the exclusive representative of the estate of Bob Thompson. Since 1996, they have presented four solo exhibitions of the artist’s work, and published catalogues for three of the shows. Most recently, the gallery presented Naked at the Edge: Bob Thompson in 2015.

Permanent Collections: (select) Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL); Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, NY); Chrysler Museum of Art (Norfolk, VA); Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, AR); Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, MI); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC); The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY); Minneapolis Institute of Art (Minneapolis, MN); Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, IL); Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA); Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); Nasher Museum of Art,  Duke University (Durham, NC); National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); New Orleans Museum of Art (New Orleans, LA); Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, PA); Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, DC); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York, NY); Speed Art Museum (Louisville, KY); The Studio Museum in Harlem (New York, NY); Tougaloo Art Collections, Tougaloo College (Tougaloo, MS); Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (Hartford, CT); and Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY).

“Le Roi Jones and his Family” (1964) by Bob Thompson, oil on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC (© Estate of Bob Thompson; courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

“Le Roi Jones and his Family” (1964) by Bob Thompson, oil on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC (© Estate of Bob Thompson; courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

"Untitled (Michelangelo's Fall of Phaeton)" by Bob Thompson, 1963, gouache on paper (page from art catalogue), 12 1/8x8 3/4in, signed and dated, © Estate of Bob Thompson

"Untitled (Michelangelo's Fall of Phaeton)" by Bob Thompson, 1963, gouache on paper (page from art catalogue), 12 1/8x8 3/4in, signed and dated, © Estate of Bob Thompson

"The Judgement " by Bob Thompson,  1963. Oil on canvas, 60x84in. Brooklyn Museum, A. Augustus Healy Fund, 81.214. © Estate of Bob Thompson (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 81.214_SL1.jpg)

"The Judgement" by Bob Thompson, 1963. Oil on canvas, 60x84in. Brooklyn Museum, A. Augustus Healy Fund, 81.214. © Estate of Bob Thompson (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 81.214_SL1.jpg)


Written by Keith Waits.
In addition to his work at the LVA, Keith is also the Managing Editor of a website, www.Arts-Louisville.com, which covers local visual arts, theatre, and music in Louisville.

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Ceramics

Feature: Tom Marsh Legacy


“By practicing a potentially usable art and by insisting on its usability, and the commonness and local peculiarity of his materials, he points it toward the older, finer, healthier sort of artistic success: that such excellent workmanship, such beauty and distinction, might again become ordinary.“ — Wendell Berry on Tom Marsh*


Artists, Ginny & Tom Marsh.

Artists, Ginny & Tom Marsh.

If past is indeed prologue, then perhaps we live in the present only by the leave of our ancestors; formative influences, and most especially our teachers. Tom Marsh was a teaching artist in the Greater Louisville area for more than 25 years, first at Silver Creek High School in his native Indiana during the 1960’s, and then as the founder of the Ceramics program at the University of Louisville’s Hite Institute for Art, where he taught until his death, in 1991.

It is also said, by those who loved and admired him the most, that he was demanding. Surely this is a requisite quality for any worthwhile mentor, and, from all accounts, Marsh set expectations as high for his own work as he did for anyone else, and the program he developed for U of L was unorthodox, moving beyond traditional studio parameters. Certainly experience has taught us that innovation often translates for some as ‘difficult’.

Marsh was raised by missionaries, and studied painting with Mary Spencer Nay at the University of Louisville. A missionary trip took him to Mashiko, Japan, where he ended up staying for several years, studying pottery with Sakuma Totaro (1900-1976), and learning various strands of Buddhism, most notably Rinzai. Once he returned to the U.S. he eventually resettled in Borden, Indiana, living his later years in adherence to ethical and spiritual practices born of his time in Japan, building an aesthetically spare house in the secluded woods that featured multi-functional space - the bed was raised on pulleys to make room for working.

Works by Marsh Pottery,   Install Image from UofL Faculty show (1984) . Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

Works by Marsh Pottery, Install Image from UofL Faculty show (1984) . Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

This holistic approach was indicative of what University of Louisville colleague and current faculty Jim Grubola calls the, “potter-philosopher” ideal that Marsh strived to embody. He brought it into his teaching, breaking out of the confines of the studio to instruct students in building outdoor kilns as a part of curriculum, a practice that brought many conflicts with both the Louisville Fire Department and University officials.

"  Approaching" by Marsh Pottery,   conjunction in situ (1992). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

"Approaching" by Marsh Pottery, conjunction in situ (1992). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

As for the work, Marsh’s ceramic pottery follows the Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty – “art,” in the strictly functional: large scale vessels for storage (because smaller pieces for daily use were commonly made from lacquer or wood), and tea pots. The full, earthen physicality might seem to contradict the western (mis) perception of delicacy as a defining characteristic of Japanese art; these are full, solid forms of visual and tactile weight. Their functionality never feels in question.

Another U of L associate, retired Print Faculty John Whitesell, describes how Marsh developed his techniques for the “expanded form jar,” in which the walls of the vessel are pushed to their limits and the outer surface begins to “crack”: “He would go beyond what you would imagine was possible… he would just keep working it, and working it.” The resulting complex, “fractured” surface texture became a trademark of Marsh’s work, a careful balance between structural integrity and creative aesthetic. However much the artist valued function, the rustic, earthy beauty of the work was always astonishing.

Whitesell also talks of “the anonymous potter,” which is a term that evolved when Marsh worked alongside his wife, Ginny Marsh. In the images of work shown here, from a 1984 sabbatical exhibit at U of L’s Schneider Galleries, all of the work is identified as simply Marsh Pottery, with no distinction given as to which Marsh created which piece. While there may be some who felt they could detect differences, Grubola, for one, could not be certain, because the nature of the vessels had gone in such an elemental direction: “Particularly towards the end,” says Grubola, “the work became more intuitive and less refined.”

"Mark" by Tom Marsh. Photo Courtesy of Hite Art Institute.

"Mark" by Tom Marsh. Photo Courtesy of Hite Art Institute.

Students came to U of L to study with Marsh specifically tolearn the Japanese-based techniques and life philosophy he expounded. Laura Ross, Wayne Ferguson, Sarah Frederick, Fong Choo, Pam Korte, Bran Hazelet, and Gwen Heffner are but a few notable potters for whom Marsh was a mentor, and many of them still live, work and teach in the area.

"Teapot" by Ginny and Tom Marsh

"Teapot" by Ginny and Tom Marsh

All of the concentration suggests that Marsh never did anything halfway. One of his teaching tools were sophisticated, multi-media presentations that he also took all around the U.S. at a time when such things were not common. “For someone so dedicated to a simple agrarian lifestyle,” remembers Whitesell, ”Tom was well-versed in technology, and had multiple projections fading in and out… synched to a pre-recorded soundtrack. It was very impressive.”

"These pots and cups and bowls are not busy calling attention to themselves as 'art objects.' Their preferred habitat is a kitchen, not a museum. They invite use. They are not just viewed. Viewing, by itself, will misunderstand them--just as, by itself, it
will misunderstand the food." — Wendell Berry

Examples of Marsh pottery are in permanent collections of museums worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in Kamajura, Japan.

Name: Tom Marsh (1934 -1991)
Hometown: Sellersburg, Indiana

The Marsh's 30 cubic foot cross draft salt kiln (c.1979). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

The Marsh's 30 cubic foot cross draft salt kiln (c.1979). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

"  Approaching Conjunction"   by Marsh Pottery,   stoneware   (1984). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

"Approaching Conjunction" by Marsh Pottery, stoneware (1984). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

"Vase with Brass Rings" by Marsh Pottery, 14in H, coarse stoneware   (1973). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

"Vase with Brass Rings" by Marsh Pottery, 14in H, coarse stoneware (1973). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2017 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved.

*From “Tom Marsh/Potter: Twenty Three Years of Clay”, published by University of Louisville, 1979.

Are you interested in being on Artebella?    Click here    to learn more.

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