For some years, promises of a full-scale Bob Thompson exhibit tantalized those of us interested in the work of this talented, self-destructive, and all-too-short-lived African-American painter. (Yes, another one.) A show finally materialized this fall, offering a welcome opportunity to take stock of what Thompson managed to pack into a brief eight years as an intensely serious, full-time painter. He died in Rome in 1966, just short of his twenty-ninth birthday— exactly the same age as Frédéric Bazille when he was killed in the Franco-Prussian war and a year older than Jean-Michel Basquiat when he, like Thompson, died of a drug overdose.

Comparisons here are, I suppose, inevitable. Like Basquiat, Thompson was not only a confirmed fan of illegal substances, but also achieved a great deal of success, at least by the more modest standards of the 1960s art world, while remarkably young: a series of solo shows in...


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