To experience a work of art created by the late JB Thompson is to be drawn irresistibly into the vortex of his mystical symbolism, the brilliant colors and the vivid architectural lines that are portrayed in his work.
To appreciate the abstract beauty is also to understand the circuitous journey he took enroute to printmaking and to understand Thompson's personal belief about art.
"It is a process," he once remarked, "through which I grow and develop as a human being. And the product that it becomes is a statement of that process at a given time. I see and digest things through personal experience, and then I let the experience reveal itself through the abstract forms of my art. If I consciously try to maintain control, it doesn't work. I have to let go of an experience before I can use it.
"As I grow and evolve and become more and more open, things come through to me more, and then they involve some kind of feeling. I don't know what it is or how it works, but it's there. The creative experience is really indefinable. For me there's a sense of being outside myself, outside time, and everything flows as one, my intellect, my technical skills, my intuition, everything. And in that experience, there is a wonderful sense of beauty, of balance and even a feeling of magic in the complexity of the universe. Although I do not purposefully strive for it, I personally feel my work is spiritual."
Once a viewer accepts Thompson's definition of the process of art, it is also easy to understand how his interest moved from architecture to painting to sculpture and finally to printmaking. His works are a splendid reflection of each artistic discipline and reveal how careful mastery of each area gave him a refined sense of control over his material and techniques.
His creative spirit might have been thwarted, had he not suffered infantile paralysis and a severe head injury as a child. He fully recovered from both incidents, but during many months of being physically incapacitated, he forced his mind to become imaginative.
When he enrolled in a university 1950, he was mystically drawn to architecture. "Something told me to find the architecture school. I went in and I looked at the renderings on the walls and I fell in love. Then this little man walked up to me and I told him, 'This is the most exciting thing I've ever seen. I don't know why I'm here, but what I see is beautiful.' We talked for about four hours."
The diminutive man was Bruce Goff, one of the most famous architects in the world. He became Thompson's mentor. He opened for Thompson a new world of unlimited creativity.
Thompson could have become an architect, his widow, Suzanna relates. "But he knew he could not be as creatively expressive as he wanted to be if he stayed with architecture. So he eventually enrolled in the art school," she said.
He turned to painting and then to sculpture. While his range of work is housed in numerous private and public collections around the country, the prints have become his legacy.
They are characterized by abstract shapes, a sense of the cosmos, by vivid colors, especially oranges, reds, and blues; by the blueprint suggestions that only a person enamored of architecture could inspire; and finally, by the bold infusion of embossed metal geometric shapes (silver, gold and copper) ingrained into the works of art. The prints also show that the spiritual overtones he felt did not elude his creativity.
He once told a reviewer, "I'm very interested in Egyptian art, pre-Columbian art; works of those periods. I've been to every major pre-Columbian site in Mexico and South America. There's some kind of affinity there. You can see that little detailing in some of the work in hieroglyphics and Mayan reliefs, and some of that comes through in my work.
"When I get into this, I feel like I've somehow been there before and experienced these things; not the ego but the energy. Not the personality. It's not necessarily reincarnation, but some of the energy that flows through me now was involved in those periods of time."
Thompson never intended to be a printmaker. An accident in his Los Angeles foundry in 1970 pushed him to merge his two artistic loves. "He was working on one of his sculptures in the foundry when he dropped 109 pounds of molten bronze," Suzanna recalled. "The whole room exploded. There were five people in the room, and they were all burned, but nobody was seriously injured, thank heavens. JB walked out of the foundry and said, 'I'm never going back'."
Thompson donated the foundry to a Los Angeles art school and then took advantage of a deal made several years before. He and two fellow artists with whom he shared a vast studio had set up a printmaking shop for some graduate art students from the Otis Art Institute, and as payment for subsidizing the printmaking shop, the artists were given the students' pledge that if they ever wanted to learn the technical aspects of printmaking, the students would teach them. Thompson called in the debt in 1970.
He was immediately successful at printmaking and his second print won the Seattle International Award.But he missed the sculpture.
He spent almost two years creating the process that would allow him to integrate his love for metal with the prints.
The interplay of metal against color was particularly important to Thompson. "I've always had a great affinity for metal," he once said, "from its molecules to the finished form of sculpture. So I decided that somehow I had to integrate metal, painting, architecture and printmaking. Developing the system wasn't easy, because I wanted the metal to be fully integrated and nor something superfluous."
His first editions of sterling silver and copper collage prints were released in 1972. He considered the development of his system "a major breakthrough in my career. I knew I had finally found the combination of art forms I had been searching for so long. At last I was able to integrate painting, sculpture and printmaking."
Kathy McPherson, a master printer, played a pivotal role in the creation of many of Thompson's prints. She worked for him for eight years and admits that the first time she saw his prints she had mixed emotions about working for him. "His collagraphs were actually like bas reliefs and were very difficult and complex to achieve. I had always thought of myself as a perfectionist. But I realized I had met someone who one-upped me. His standards were very exacting. But I'm glad I stayed with him. All of his printing plates could easily be treated as works of art on their own," she said.
Each piece of metal in Thompson's art was prepared by hand. No mechanical tools were involved. The image was cut, embossed from an original plate, chemically treated and polished by hand in his studio until the metal literally sparkled. There were as many as thirteen processes involved in the preparation of the metal alone, ranging from the use of a sulphurated potash which darkened certain areas of the metal, to acid formulas that gave the copper a green patina.The metal was then adhered to the original print or painting through a process developed for Thompson by a 3M chemist.
The carborundum process was a vital technique in Thompson's printing plates and one that McPherson said is extremely difficult to interpret. It had a quality like the grit of sandpaper and helped hold the ink. It gave his work the texture and richness he so wanted.
The unusual prints combine a variety of techniques and materials, including collagraphs, woodcuts, lithographs, aqautint etching, carborundum surfaces and metal collages in sterling silver, gold, copper and gold leaf. His masterful use of the carborundum process is one of his signatures.
Unlike his experiences, which he had to let go of before he could use in his art, his prints were an integral part of him, he said. "I want each one to be right and to feel right before it leaves my studio."
Don Brewer, former director of the University of Southern California Fine Arts Gallery, listed Thompson among "the top printmakers of our time." Brewer said of him, "His standards are impeccable. His considerable experience as a sculpture serves to bridge two media by very effectively allowing him to integrate the three dimensional qualities of relief sculpture with the two dimensional aspects of the print. The result adds a rich visual extension to the sensuosity of the craft."
Thompson followers often say that the foundry explosion eventually caused another significant change in his career. His early works primarily featured earth colors, metallic tints, highlights and strong tones of blacks. A number of these works are considered Thompson classics. But, in time after the foundry explosion, he began to use bright slashes of yellow, orange and red, giving his work a new vibrancy, a feeling of heat that replaced the cool, mellow feelings his earlier work engendered. "Honeyed and opulent richness" is the way William Wilson, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, described his work.
Suzanna said, "JB was very picky about mixing colors. I never saw him use the printer's ink straight from the can. He always had to mix it, to make it different, to achieve the impact he was seeking."
MacPherson considers his desire to make his colors more vibrant in his prints a turning point in his career, and hers as well. "he asked me, 'How can I get the intensity of color expressed in my paintings in my prints?' " MacPherson related. "He called on me, not as an artist, but as a printer. I was able to help him transpose what he had expressed in his paintings. I tried to capture that in planning the plates so he could create what he felt and saw in his paintings. As we worked on those pieces, the metal seemed to become even more homogenous with the prints. It was a transition time for him."
"These works are not a radical change," Thompson once noted. "They are merely the result of an ongoing progression, part of a natural flow."
Critics have described his prints as "a marriage of sculpture and intaglio painting processes... curious, sometimes dark, sometimes strange shapes that add a three-dimensional sculptural sense to the works and an interesting variation in the prints' flow of color, line and form."
Thompson's forms invite peering and suggestions. Often a viewer will marvel at the counterpoint of bright, explosive colors, offset by dark patterns, prisms, mazes, passageways, horizons and metal pieces. But that juxtaposition makes the work more intense and prods the viewer to search for easily identifiable forms.
One reviewer noted that, "unlike many examples of abstract art, Thompson's work did not seem to have been created with the randomness of many abstract works. Looking into the forms, there is a sense of order and familiarity rather than confusion over involuntary shapes that sometimes makes viewers wonder, 'What is this?', and panic because they don't know or care."
"Of course, the easy answers to the forms are not there," another critic noted. "But there is enough reality in them to suggest that it's possible the forms they hoped to find exist in Thompson's work."
"The source of his imagery was a direct, mystical experience of reality, which he did not try to define or control," said Suzanna, who has continued to serve as director of their Aquarian Realm Studio in Los Angeles. "He truly did not separate the creation of his art from the living of his life. Both were a continuous process of exploration-- a synthesis of the known and the unknown, of technical skill and creative intuition."
She said, "His ideas came from everywhere and from everything. He could never explain them. And, usually, when he was asked the source of inspiration for a work, he would just tap his head and say, 'There's no explaining.' He would say there is so much that is with us in our everyday lives, so much in the universe that is beautiful if we look deeply enough. He wanted to present other possibilities, other ways of looking at life, and make them beautiful. When he was really into creating a new piece, he would become totally absorbed in it."
His images are as rich and varied as his techniques, the result of an equally thorough exploration in the realm of consciousness and self-knowledge. The titles of his pieces often refer to journeys and voyages, travels that are both physical and spiritual. Some works have a sense of inner motion moving around a powerful center, while in others there is a delicate and mysterious blending and overlapping of colors.
Other images are like metaphysical diagrams of the universe, using circles within squares within circles, suggesting different levels of the cosmos, like pieces of a puzzle that, if put together, would form a perfect whole.
As one reviewer stated, "In Thompson's work, one can experience simultaneously moving outward to the limits of the physical universe and inward to the limits of an individual sense of self. It does not dictate, but merely points the way, suggesting other possibilities and other realities."
Thompson's images are worthy of psychological introspection. In Crescendo, a highly dramatic piece and the last print Thompson created before he died of cancer in May 1984, the eye is pulled toward a large sterling silver disc embossed with horizontal bars and a round central area. That pivotal focal point is placed in a rhythmic axis of black fibrous shapes, around which eleven small silver squares are arranged. These elements literally vibrate on a background of brilliant orange/red blending into light shades of blues and purples. For the viewer, it is a pure visual experience.
The intense, vibrant colors of Pathfinder I with its elongated pieces of gold extending from the center, suggests a universal search. While Pathfinder II with soft, yet intense overlapping pastels and pieces of gold pulled to the center, suggests a culmination of the search.
"The titles JB gave his works always seemed so appropriate," Suzanna said, "that people often asked if the names came before the pieces. But, the titles always came after a work was finished. Each one seemed to name itself."
Ritual was the last in a series of three prints which harks a viewer back to prehistoric times and ancient ceremonies. A delicate, sensitive piece, it is highlighted with gold leaf.
Star's End suggests a galaxy of concentric circles, anchored by a cross-like form, tinged with symbols that have futuristic overtones. Similar overtones are beautifully expressed in Time Tracings.
Another dramatic work is Rubycon. It is bold and daring in its statement. The major part of the image consists of subtly textured blacks, with rich vibrant reds, blues and purples extending across the top, and an intense red slashing down through the black area on one side of the print. These stark contrasts are set off by two elegantly embossed and highly polished sterling silver pieces extending across the image.
Thompson once commented on the forms in his work and said, "The idea has often occurred to me of being inside an enormous kaleidoscope, seeing form and space in the fourth dimension, changing gradually. Here a form might be an ancient temple or symbol from some distant civilization. Yet, with a slight turn, it becomes a structure that might exist a thousand years from now. The idea is timelessness. This same idea is what I strive for in my work. There is joy and excitement in creating something I've never seen, but there is a knowingness that I have experienced it either in the distant past or the distant future."
Thompson's last painting was a small one that he could also take with him while he was intermittently hospitalized. "It is an extremely complex piece," Suzanna related, "reflecting, I'm sure, the complex feelings he was experiencing in dealing with his illness, which was discovered only three months before he died. I suggested several times that the piece appeared finished, but he would say, 'No, not yet'. There is an arrow-like shape painted within a small square in the piece. Nowhere else in the work does this symbol appear. And, when I remarked on it, he replied, with a slight grin, "That's the way out: the exit.' "
Thompson worked on the piece the day before he died. It was signed and dated, an artist's device Thompson never yielded to until he felt a work was complete.
Art for JB Thompson was a continual new experience. Each work, each image was a fresh, exciting adventure, a new reflection of his own change, a shining mirror of his inner development and growth as an artist.
In a letter Thompson wrote, "There really is magic in the universe." That special magic was reflected through his work. Suzanna believes that quality was expressed not only in the paintings, the sculpture and the prints, but in his sometimes philosophical, sometimes cosmic way of looking at life.
"Star's End is a good example," Suzanna said. "when we were looking at the first completed image of it, he said, 'Well, it's like a map that you could fold up and put in your pocket and no matter where you are in the universe, it will always get you home.' His ideas were often very abstract, but there was always magic and a message behind his work."