Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Mildred Thompson and the Art of the Cosmos

Mildred Thompson 'Magnetic Fields' 1990, oil on canvas, 70.5 x 150” (triptych)
Mildred Thompson 'Magnetic Fields' 1990, oil on canvas, 70.5 x 150” (triptych)

American artist Mildred Jean Thompson (March 12, 1936 – September 1, 2003) worked in many media, including printmaking, sculpture, painting, drawing and photography, as well as a writer. Critics see the influence of German Expressionism, West African textiles, Islamic architecture, spiritualism, metaphysics music and particularly jazz as her work grew increasingly abstract and improvisational. All these things are important, but her interest in physics and astronomy also shines through in the art about music and sound, to the later work specifically about mathematics, magnetic fields, radiation, particles and planetary systems. Thompson said, “My work in the visual arts is, and always has been, a continuous search for understanding. It is an expression of purpose and reflects a personal interpretation of the universe.” 

Mildred Thompsn, String Theory Series, 1999, acrylic on vinyl, 61.5 x 46”

Finding her ability to show as a Black woman in the US was hampered by racism and sexism, she spent a decade in Germany. She had studied at Art Academy of Hamburg and returned to live and work in the Rhineland town of Düren in the 60s. By the 70s her work had become completely abstract. From 1975 to 1986 she lived in Tampa, Washington D.C, Paris, before settling in Atlanta, where she wrote for the periodical Art Papers, taught at the Atlanta College of Art and worked as an artist for the rest of her life. Thompson explained, "My work has to do with the cosmos and how it affects us," to Essence magazine in 1990.

Mildred Thompson, Helio Centric III, 1993, intaglio vitreograph, 40" x 30" each
(image size 30" x 24")


For me the Helios Centric series evokes the swirling chaos of the nascent solar system, as masses spun in a disc around our sun, colliding and aggregating over time into a string of planets and smaller bodies. She did not make literal interpretations of sound, forces, space or any underlying physics of the universe but expressed these concepts imagination, emotion, colour and rhythm. There's a great deal of joy to be found in her work. She explored the universe from the smallest scales of her Wave Function, Radiation and String Theory series to the astronamical scale of our solar system and beyond and what she saw and expressed was quite beautiful.

Mildred Thompson
Radiation Explorations 8, 1994
Oil on canvas
87.5 x 110.1 inches (222.3 x 279.7 cm) overall

Wave Function III, 1993, intaglio vitreograph, 30" x 22.5" (image size 20" x 16")

References & Further Info

Deanna Sirlin, Melissa Messina and the Mildred Thompson Legacy Project, interview on The Arts Section

Mildred Thompson, on 

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