Lately, the New Orleans Museum of Art has been a study in contrasts. As “The Orleans Collection" of Old Master works originally assembled by New Orleans’ namesake, Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, overwhelms the eye, this more modest "Against the Grain" expo of works by late abstract artist Mildred Thompson (installation view, pictured) evokes the subtle magic of the ordinary while remaining far more down to earth.
Part of a generation of great but often overlooked 20th century black female modern artists, Thompson and her peers were in many ways ahead of their time for the way their universal vision set the stage for the 21st century's global perspective. Thompson may have been the most eclectic and experimental of the lot, and this exhibition, co-curated by Katie Pfohl and Melissa Messina, and organized around a nucleus of starkly yet lyrically emblematic works acquired through NOMA's Leah Chase Exhibition & Art Purchase Fund, is her first solo museum show in 30 years.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1936, Thompson, as a female black artist in the 1950s, was ignored in New York but found success in Europe, where most of these “Against the Grain” works were made. “Wood Picture,” 1972, suggests nothing and everything as homely wooden planks part to reveal a flash of royal purple in a composition that makes visual sense while eluding didactic conceptual analysis. “Wood Picture,” 1966, a white-on-white composition of tautly arranged wooden rectangles, resonates a haunting silent music like a Bauhaus rendition of a diddley bow composition. A silkscreen print, “Untitled (No. III),” may initially suggest pristine European abstraction, but look again and it recalls African patterning, like a wildebeest reduced to its abstract essence.
Thompson's range of associations reminds us that all humans are products of diverse cultural legacies built on DNA derived from global migrations that ultimately originated in Africa. As she put it: “There are recordings in our genes that remember Africa. If they are strong enough and we are free of false denials, they will surface and appear without deliberation no matter what we do."
Through Aug. 31, 2019 at the New Orleans Museum of Art, 1 Collins C. Diboll Circle, (504) 658-4100; www.noma.org.