Cummer Museum acquires work by locally-born abstract artist Mildred Thompson
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Cummer Museum acquires work by locally-born abstract artist Mildred Thompson
Mildred Thompson (American, 1936 – 2003), Magnetic Fields, 1991, oil on canvas, 61 ¾ x 95 ½ in., Purchased with funds from the Rushton William Hays Revocable Trust and the Morton R. Hirschberg Bequest, AP.2019.1.1. Art and photo © The Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.

JACKSONVILLE, FLA.- The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens announced the acquisition of “Magnetic Fields,” a new work of art by abstract artist Mildred Thompson (1936-2003), born in Jacksonville, Florida. The acquisition was made possible through the generous support the Rushton William Hays Revocable Trust and the Morton R. Hirschberg Bequest.

“The acquisition of Thompson’s ‘Magnetic Fields’ adds to the collection of the Cummer Museum in significant ways,” states Adam Levine, the Museum’s George W. and Kathleen I. Gibbs Director & CEO. “Not only is the work by a locally-born female artist of color, it is an exceptional example of Abstract Expressionism from an overlooked figure in art history. The acquisition of this work exemplifies the institution’s commitment to creating a permanent collection that represents its community through artworks of exceptional aesthetic merit.”

“Magnetic Fields” (1991), part of a series by the same name, shows a rich yellow ground with arcs and lines drawn in kinetic expression with vibrant reds, oranges and blues in thick impasto . The upper portion of the painting shows concentric arcs of red around an implied midpoint, with darts of blue and orange shooting off in many directions, suggesting centripetal and centrifugal forces. Inspired by the scientific principles governing magnetism, “Magnetic Fields” connects the scientific with the metaphysical. Thompson’s interests were broad and included the study of quantum physics, cosmology, and theosophy. The piece emanates a pulsing, frenetic energy that is unique to her painting style, a visual language she developed to interpret phenomena one experiences, but cannot see.

Mildred Thompson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1936. She graduated from Howard University in 1957 with a Bachelor of Art degree. While at Howard, she studied under James Porter, a pioneering African-American art historian. She attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1956, earned a Max Beckmann Scholarship to study at the Brooklyn Museum School from 1957 to 1958, attended the Art Academy of Hamburg from 1958 to 1961, participated in a residency at Castle Roccassinibaldi, Italy in 1959, and in 1961 and 1962 was selected for the prestigious MacDowell Colony residency in New Hampshire. Though the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum each purchased works from Thompson in the early 1960s, she spent the majority of the 1960s and ‘70s in Germany, in response to racial and gender discrimination in the United States. During this time abroad, she taught, traveled, and exhibited her art across Europe, creating a vast body of work in printmaking, painting, and sculpture.

In the early 1970s, Thompson, influenced by the abstract paintings of the early modernists such as Wassily Kandinsky, consciously turned away from the creation of representational imagery to fully focus her craft on the abstract. She was among the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, and one of the few women of color in that group. In lieu of falling into the societal trap of ever-changing art trends and politically-driven content, Thompson artistically interpreted varied scientific and musical theories that are not visible to the naked eye.

“My work in the visual arts is, and always has been, a continuous search for understanding,” stated Thompson during her life. “It is an expression of purpose and reflects a personal interpretation of the universe. Each new creation presents a visual manifestation of the sum total of this life long investigation and serves as a reaffirmation of my commitment to the arts. This exploration has led me through the various techniques of painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking and photography.”

Returning to the United States in 1974, Thompson served as artist-in-residence for the City of Tampa through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, then returned to Howard University in Washington, D.C. to take up another residency. Over the next few years, she divided her time between Washington, D.C. and Paris, France, finally settling in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1985 after accepting a residency at Spelman College, then teaching at Atlanta College of Art. She served as an Associate Editor at Art Papers magazine. Thompson worked as an artist in multiple genres and as a journalist, creative writer, filmmaker, musician, and educator.

In the United States works by Thompson may be found in the collections of the Birmingham Museum of Art; the Brooklyn Museum, New York; the Georgia Museum of Art; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; and now at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida, among other institutions. She created a large body of work during her life, in media ranging from pen and ink drawings, prints and sculptures, to complex oil paintings. Magnetic Fields was featured in the Dakar Biennale, Senegal, in 1992. Thompson died in 2003 at the age of 67, in Atlanta, Georgia.

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