An African-American, Bob Thompson had success in the 1960s as an artist, which was unusual for black artists of that era and led to his becoming a pivotal figure for African-American artists and for art historians. However, his life was cut short when he died in Rome in 1966 just before his twenty-ninth birthday.
Thompson was a modernist who adapted Paul Gauguin's Fauvist use of interlocking planes of bright colors. He often used Biblical subjects, and created an effect of idealized, faceless figures. Among his paintings were Flagellation of Christ and St. George and the Dragon.
Living among avant-garde artists in New York City, where he briefly had a studio on Rivington Street, and in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he was at odds with the prevalent Pop and Op art style of the time. He was also rebellious in that he declined to fill the traditional black- artist role of doing narrative, genre work about black life in America, nor was he willing to do pure abstraction, which was being touted as an expression of universal experience.
Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Thompson had a year of frustrating pre-med studies at Boston University from 1955 to 1956, and then returned to Louisville and began art studies at the University of Louisville, where he met he met fellow student Sam Gilliam, as well as G. Caliman Coxe and Kenneth Victor Young. In 1958, he went to Provincetown, Massachusetts where he was influenced to move from abstraction to more figurative art. There he associated with figurative expressionists Lester Johnson, Red Grooms, Mimi Gross and Gandy Brodie.
In 1959, he moved to New York's Lower East Side, not far from where Benny Andrews lived, and participated in group shows and single gallery exhibitions. In 1961, he first went to Europe, traveling in Rome, Madrid and Paris, and he returned in 1963. He also became a regular part of the downtown painters' and musicians' scene in New York.
In 1998, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his figurative abstract work. Joseph Hirshorn donated 15 of Thompson's works to the Hirshorn Museum.