Details
BOB THOMPSON (1937-1966)
Upside-Down Man on Donkey (Dream)
signed and dated 'Bob Thompson 63' (upper left)
oil on canvas
24 x 18in. (60.8 x 45.6cm.)
Painted in 1963
Provenance
Michael Abrams, London.
Thence by descent to the present owner in 2009.
Special notice
Please note this lot is the property of a consumer. See H1 of the Conditions of Sale.
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Lot Essay

‘My aim is to project images that seem vital to me ... images ... that seem to have meaning in terms of feeling’
Bob Thompson

Bob Thompson’s Upside-Down Man on Donkey (Dream) (1963) is a bold, visionary composition in electrifying hues. Interlocking planes of colour body forth a hallucinatory scene of worship, parade or performance: a nude person is serenely upside-down on a donkey’s back, aglow with a bright yellow body and green hair, and legs looped round the dome-shaped head of a red rider behind. A crowd of faceless, hat-wearing beings and a pair of shawled women gather to watch. Thompson’s palette—from the scumbled, pastel-pink sky to the neon greens, earthy reds and primary yellows below—recalls the saturated visions of Gauguin and the German Expressionists; his imagery takes cues from Goya’s nightmarish Caprichos, which feature witches, inquisitors, levitating women and donkeys riding men. Thompson, who died aged just twenty-eight in 1966, was celebrated during his short and spectacular career for channelling such influences—via the tumult of his own subconscious—into deeply-felt compositions of controlled, incandescent impact.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thompson studied at the city’s university in the late 1950s among German émigré artists such as Ulfert Wilke; in 1958, he spent a summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he encountered a Symbolist strain of figurative art which drew heavily on the work of the Old Masters. Thompson took these lessons to heart, and began to paint prolifically. Searching for an environment that would match his creative energy, he settled in New York, where he befriended Beat poets such as Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg, and jazz musicians including Ornette Coleman. In 1961, he left to travel Europe for two years, obsessively studying the Renaissance masterpieces in the Louvre. Returning to New York laden with new paintings in 1963, he was given a one-man show by Martha Jackson—whose gallery had represented such artists as Rothko, de Kooning and Pollock—and his reputation grew rapidly, with museums nationwide acquiring his raw, charged canvases for their collections: a larger version of the present composition, titled The Procession, is held in the Art Institute of Chicago. Thompson’s meteoric success was unheard of for an African-American artist at the time, and would only be paralleled by that of Jean-Michel Basquiat two decades later.Upside-Down Man on Donkey (Dream), with its jewel-like tones and striking formal power, is a superb example of his unmistakable style.

Christie’s is delighted to present works from the collection of the late Michael Abrams, son of the New York art book publisher and collector Harry N. Abrams. Featuring works by Bob Thompson, Ray Johnson, Claes Oldenburg and Öyvind Fahlström amongst others, the collection is a remarkable insight into Abrams’ approach to collecting, his family’s connection to New York and the dialogues between Britain, Europe and America which formed the basis of Pop art in the 1960s. This presents a unique opportunity to acquire historic works by the artists who were Abrams’ friends and contemporaries.

Abrams’ playful, colourful collection paints a vivid picture of the growth of Pop art on both sides of the Atlantic, but it also tells stories of his close personal engagement with some of the era’s most significant figures. Abrams grew up surrounded by art, and was part of the New York scene from a young age. He was photographed with Picasso—who he saw as a god among artists—and received the ultimate in Pop immortality in 1964, being captured by Warhol in a silkscreened double portrait with his brother Bob.

Living in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s, Abrams was involved in productions by the Play-House of the Ridiculous, an avant-garde theatre—with ties to Warhol’s Factory—whose work prefigured the Rocky Horror Picture Show. He got to know James Rosenquist and Öyvind Fahlström through their work on set designs; Rosenquist’s lithograph Marilyn (1974) was a personal favourite of his. Claes Oldenburg and the conceptual-Pop artist Ray Johnson—who Abrams considered hugely underrated—were also friends from this thrilling creative period, as New York transitioned into the age of Punk, New Wave and Glam.

Later, living in England, Abrams continued to return regularly to New York. On each trip, he would visit the studio of the Pop titan Tom Wesselmann, with whom he shared a particularly warm friendship. Wesselmann is represented in the collection by a diverse array of prints, collage and painting, which pack huge visual power across a variety of scales. When Abrams briefly owned a t-shirt company in the 1990s, Wesselmann agreed to have his composition Goldfish with Daffodil (1985) printed as a design.

While based in the UK, Abrams also paid close attention to homegrown talent, acquiring works by leading lights of the British Pop movement. They provide a perfect complement to the American art in his collection. Among them are a superb group of prints by Patrick Caulfield, as well as works by Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi.

Abrams collected from the heart: art was part of who he was, and how he moved through the world. He and his wife lived among the collection, enjoying the perennial task of hanging works into new arrangements on the crowded walls of their home. After Abrams passed away, she called James Rosenquist to tell him the news; Rosenquist’s parting comment was ‘make sure you look after the young artists.’ It is in this spirit that the present works are offered for sale—to share them with a new audience, and to make space on those walls for the emerging artists whose work Abrams’ widow continues to support.

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