Against the Grain marks the first solo museum presentation in more than thirty years of the experimental works in wood by African American artist Mildred Thompson. An accomplished painter, sculptor, writer and musician, Thompson (1936–2003) created abstract work in wood that went against the grain of the more representational and overtly political art of her time. Located somewhere between painting, sculpture, and collage, Thompson’s wood works combine found and manipulated wood segments into sophisticated, expressive compositions. Exploring wood’s natural variations in texture, color, and form, Thompson rejected figuration to instead offer more subtle and evocative reflections on history, memory, and place.
Treating wood as a measure of time and history, Thompson’s wood works poetically evoked the social and political issues that animated her time. Created at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Thompson located in wood both a formal and symbolic resonance: its lines and circles, its grains and knots, made metaphorical connections to ideas of history and memory, individuality and universality. Often juxtaposing found wood sourced from forests with machine-cut wood segments—as well as found objects like broken clothespins—her work drew attention to the frequent disjuncture between nature’s rhythms and cycles and the very different pace of human history. Assembling wood segments that, in Thompson’s words, “do not fit together,” allowed the artist to create abstract compositions that proposed new ways that humanity might relate to the natural world as well as to one another.
Despite the prevailing modes of figuration and narrative for artists of her generation, Thompson maintained her commitment to abstraction in the face of many obstacles—claiming her right to create a personally expressive and symbolic language, and exploring materiality, mark-making, color, and form as gestures of catharsis. In the context of her time and place, Thompson’s enduring belief in abstraction’s ability to speak to universal themes, while also serving as a balm for the complexities of her political moment, can itself be seen as an act of resistance. Through her art, she insisted on abstraction’s power as an oppositional tool: a means of countering the inflammatory nature of contemporary politics by evoking more universal concerns.
Made during the artist’s self-imposed exile in Europe, Thompson’s wood pictures are only recently being rediscovered and presented in the United States. This exhibition includes three rare early wood pictures recently acquired by NOMA for its permanent collection alongside a selection of wood pictures and related prints from a private collection in New Orleans and the Mildred Thompson Estate and Galerie Lelong & Co, New York, all of which reflect Thompson’s deep commitment to the language of abstraction.
—Katie A. Pfohl, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, with Allison Young, Mellon Curatorial Fellow of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Melissa Messina, Curator of the Mildred Thompson Estate
Mildred Thompson: Against the Grain is on view in the second-floor Stafford Focus Gallery through March 31, 2019.