more from the
March/April 2015 issue:
Interview: Claire Tancons
The Political Aesthetics
– D. Erik Bookhardt
On Informality and Nomadism
– Timothy P.A. Cooper
– Iyawó (Kristin Naca)
– Shumon Basar
Creating Matter: The Prints of Mildred Thompson
– Dan Weiskopf
Islands of the Day Before
– Jerry Cullum
+ buy Mar/Apr 2015 issue
The Prints of Mildred Thompson
at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Art, Atlanta
Review / Dan Weiskopf
portrait of Mildred Thompson, c. 1960s
[courtesy of the Mildred Thompson Estate]
Mildred Thompson's life traced a wandering orbit. Born in Jacksonville, FL, in 1936, she attended Howard University in
Washington, DC, and trained at the Art Institute of Hamburg, Germany, before returning to the United States in 1961, where
she spent several years trying to launch her career in New York. Although she had works acquired by the Museum of Modern
Art and the Brooklyn Museum, many galleries declined to show work by an African American woman. One owner suggested that
she find a white woman to represent her publicly. Other black artists working in abstraction faced similar barriers in
all directions. As Howardena Pindell recounted in a 2014 interview with Artnews, "I remember going with my abstract
work to the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the director at the time said to me, 'Go downtown and show with the white boys.'"
Thompson, who identified as a peripatetic citizen of the world, instead left for Germany again, this time to teach at the
Volkshochschule Eschweiler until moving back to the United States in 1974. She made stops in Florida–Jacksonville and
Tampa–before settling in Atlanta in 1985, where she worked as an associate editor of ART PAPERS from 1987 into the
early 2000s. She continued to show in the US and Germany until her death in 2003.
At the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Art, Creating Matter [January 17–May 17, 2015] features 18 of Thompson's
works on paper. An untitled etching from 1959 provides a hint of her early trajectory as an artist. It centers on a
shadowy female figure with raised arms surrounded by a welter of scratches, dots, arcs, and blotches. This subject's
serene face is a still white oval that floats above the jostling marks that fill the margins—marks neither clearly
regimented enough to be symbols, nor depicting anything as definite as a scarred background surface. They are, rather,
like unstructured graphical scraps, dancing bits of visual matter that have not yet cohered into anything solid.
This early piece, along with Love for Sale—a 1959 etching in the collection of MoMA—aligns Thompson stylistically with
Jean Dubuffet. In the later works on view, Thompson abandons the figure, allowing the restless patterns of marks formerly
of the surrounds to come to the fore. Her images were often inspired by her readings of modern physics and cosmology, as
well as the mystic P.D. Ouspensky's writings; some incorporate visual allusions to specific scientific phenomena. Her
scratchy arcing lines resemble tracks of ionized particles in a cloud chamber, and the Caversham Press, South Africa series (1999)
includes a repeated central design that is reminiscent of the bipolar radiation burst of a pulsar, or ejection jets streaming
from a black hole.
Although Thompson drew inspiration from her study of physics, a heavy-handed reading of these works in terms of physical
theories or technical methods of visualization would overstate their connections with the science and downplay the strengths
of the works. The marvelous vitrograph Wave Function III (1993), despite its titular nod to quantum mechanics, shows a
dynamic world of vortices and flow in which yellowish discs swirl above thick, sinuous, black waves in a sea-blue background.
Its lines, dots, and swirls suggest endless processes of seeking form rather than settling into it. Advancing Impulses 36 (1989)
features a seething, brightly colored ribbon of streamers that curves its way across the page in a shape-shifting mass. Its
entangled forms depict a sequence of transformations encompassing a process of continual creation and destruction. The print
echoes works by Alma Thomas, particularly The Eclipse (1970), with its tiled circular patterns of nearly square elements
forming a burning corona.
For Thompson, then, science is a source of metaphors and basic elements (fields, waves, and strings) for depicting processes
of all sorts. Even her landscape-themed works have a tightly wound energy to them. In the barren world of The Fourth Mystery (1989),
a circle of negative space hovers above a crooked horizon line and a sky filled with streaks and shards of matter, making the ground
appear to be coming apart at the seams. In other works this process of unraveling is nearly complete: by The Fifth Mystery (1989),
the solid earth has vanished entirely, replaced by chaotic clouds of torn-looking remains. Thompson returns repeatedly to the dual
nature of material transformation (another series on view is aptly titled Death and Orgasm), but in these darker, explosive works
its destructive aspects are dominant, as opposed to the joyfulness that overflows the larger color prints.
In addition to being a printmaker, Thompson was a painter, sculptor, and blues musician. Though her last major retrospective was
almost two decades ago (Mildred Thompson: Deep Space, Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art, 1997), even this small selection
of her works excels in highlighting their restless exuberance, and the varied ways in which she captured the unceasing cycles of
change that drive the material and spiritual worlds. Creating Matter makes a strong case for a more comprehensive reassessment of
her place in the history of contemporary abstraction.
– Dan Weiskopf