I am writing to mark the passing last Sunday (November 28) of Bob Thompson, the Colonel John Trumbull Professor of African and African-American art at Yale, at the age of eighty-eight. His colleagues and students will write a more professional obituary than I ever could, but these are a few personal memories for myself and for friends who loved this magical man. As my wife, Marianne, said when we heard the news, “he forever changed the way I look at the world.”
Marianne and I married in May of 1980 and four months later moved into Timothy Dwight College, where “Master T” (as the students called Thompson) served as the college head for 32 years. We had the top floor in the fellows’ wing above Skip (Henry Louis) Gates and Sharon Adams, who also arrived that fall. Our now forty-one year friendship is one of the many gifts just for standing in the orbit of “Master T.” His non-judgmental appreciation of the unique character in each person he encountered, utterly without hierarchies of class or position, his generosity of spirit as a human being and as a writer (to quote something Jack Flam pointed out to me yesterday) embraced everyone. He indelibly inspired generations of Yale undergraduates, young faculty, his graduate students and anyone who worked with him, in any capacity, with an uplifting optimism, warmth, and curiosity, “Àshe!” he called it, using a Yoruba word for “we make it happen.”
Bob had an ambition always to find something he described as “the aliveness an image must embody to function as a work of art.”1 For him it was a gesture of respect for things in the world, made by people, with the power to move them. This has always been central to my work too and Bob, forever encouraging me, especially loved my writing on Christo for focusing on this aspect. In our second year in TD our daughter Maya was born. One evening at a reception, while we waited for her to arrive, Bob shook cowry shells and bourbon over the oriental rugs in his living room to forecast “a pink girl”—precisely! Late in Marianne’s pregnancy, we sometimes woke up at 3 am and from the kitchen window we could see into Bob’s study. He was always there in those days hunched over his typewriter, working through the night on Flash of the Spirit. He made the college alive with intellectual vitality, often bringing amazing visitors as well to the guest suite next door to us. I remember having dinner sitting on the couch in the Master’s House with Moshe Dayan; the general stayed in that suite in the next entry and I vividly recall the night Bob started to worry about his guest, walked over there to check on him, only to encounter Israeli security forces stepping out from every corner in the staircase!
This photo of Bob and me was taken in that suite in 2004 when I was back for the term as a visiting professor. I was teaching at the University of Illinois where I stayed for thirty-five wonderful years. Bob showed me how the moves of the Illinois cheerleaders came straight out of ancient Congolese law trials and incantations – I had to make him a set of slides at a football game! He also came to talk while he was writing Tango: The Art History of Love and in the midst of his lecture reached over to one of my graduate students seated in the front row, pulled her onto the stage, and demonstrated the tango! (She was wonderful too in the grace with which she accepted this.) There was an unforgettable moment of crescendo in that lecture at which he said “How do we know this? We got documents, baby! Documents!” His discussion of Basquiat in the PBS film Imagining America: Icons of Twentieth Century Art shows him lecturing – always a tour de force. On Monday, Skip Gates wrote to me recollecting that “we had some great times together, didn't we? He truly was a pioneer!” He was. For me it was African Art in Motion (1974) that fundmentally changed me, and also seeing that magnificent, huge, red funerary figure from the Congo in the National Gallery at the opening dinner for his Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds (1981). It’s that pioneer, his Àshe!, his way of encountering the world with love and admiration that is the great gift he gave me. He will remain with me, alive in my memories.
- Robert Farris Thompson, “Preface,” African Art in Motion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), XII.