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Mildred Thompson (1936 – 2003), Atlanta, Georgia, 1988

Melissa Messina and the Mildred Thompson Legacy Project

Interview by Deanna Sirlin

Deanna Sirlin: How did you come to be the curator of the Mildred Thompson Estate?


Melissa Messina: Well, I always like to start out by noting that Mildred Thompson was my professor at the Atlanta College of Art from 1997 – 2000. She also became my thesis advisor, which allowed me to study more independently with her after I’d exhausted all of her courses. When she retired we stayed friends until she passed in 2003. I consider her a mentor. So in many ways, the Mildred Thompson Legacy Project is 20 years in the making.


I reconnected with Donna Jackson, Mildred Thompson’s life partner, in 2012 when I returned to Georgia from New York to serve as the Senior Curator at Savannah College of Art and Design. I promised her that I would devote some of my free time to researching the life and work of Mildred Thompson in the hopes of finding exhibition opportunities for her work. I applied for and received a Creative Time | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant in late 2013 with the goal of doing just that. My role has grown and developed from there.

Mildred Thompson, Radiation Explorations 8, 1994, Oil on canvas, 87.5 x 110.1 inches (222.3 x 279.7 cm) overall

© The Mildred Thompson Estate, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York 

DS: Since you first knew Mildred Thompson as your teacher, can you describe her approach to teaching and how it connects with her work?


MM: As you know from teaching with her, Deanna, her courses were the stuff of art school legend. There were miles-long waiting lists to take her courses, and they were quite unconventional. Her teachings and interests were always one and the same.


Two courses, in particular, encapsulate her artistic interests. In “Making the Invisible Visible” students developed “personal pictorial language for things considered not visible to the naked eye” such as frequencies and vibrations, after learning basic theories of physics from her lectures. And her “Music Matters” course was similarly structured but based on historical theories and practices found in Western music from the Middle Ages to classical and jazz. She wrote in the syllabus course description: “Music is considered by some belief systems to be a path to invisible, parallel worlds.” [1]


Thompson felt that the patterns and systems of science, math and music had universal resonance. She was inspired by the similarities and repetition in these patterns when experiencing them through a microscope, a telescope or even a musical instrument. For her, this mirroring reinforces our connection to the universe and is what we all share as human beings. The universal language of abstraction was the way she evoked these ideas, and she taught this freedom of expression to her students.


Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields, 1990, Oil on canvas,

62 x 48 inches (157.5 x 121.9 cm), Collection National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, Gift of the Georgia Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

© The Mildred Thompson Estate, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York 

DS: Can you tell us a little about her persona as a teacher and artist?  I remember her toughness as a colleague at Atlanta College of Art. 


MM: I do know that toughness! Mildred had very little patience for bureaucracy, and she did not suffer fools. Her toughness did not translate into her teaching, though. She expected a lot of her students – she was a hard worker and very prolific and expected the same of her students – but she fostered an environment of exploration, of learning through experimentation, and sometimes even failure. She encouraged through her critiques and made students want to try new things.


She allowed students to grade themselves (which I believe did not go over well with said bureaucracy). She told me in later years that very rarely in her decades of teaching did she disagree with a student’s self-assessment. She felt self-evaluation was part of the learning process. She believed that a student is in charge of his/her education.


DS:Thompson made sculpture in Germany out of found pieces of wood. When she returned to the United States, her work moved to brightly hued paintings, drawings and prints. How do you connect the sculptural work to the later work?


Yes, Mildred moved to Germany in the early 1960s, leaving the Lower East Side of Manhattan for a rural community south of Cologne. She felt in Germany she was freer to express herself and had more of a support system. There she began experimenting with found wood assemblages. I believe it was her love of Louise Nevelson’s work that inspired this at first. She did use bright paint in some of the wood pieces as well. Soon, the forms and palette expanded into two-dimensional oil on board paintings in the early 1970s and 80s.


It is important to note that Mildred always worked in many media, and remained dedicated to wood sculpture (2-D and 3-D) as well as drawing and printmaking, all while making mature bodies of work in oil paint. And all of her work is connected to themes of science and nature no matter the medium. She always began with a concept and found the best media she felt could translate those ideas into objects.

Mildred Thompson, Wood Picture 18, early 1970s, found wood, nails, paint, 48 3/4" x 36" x 2 1/2", Collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art

© The Mildred Thompson Estate, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York 

DS: What is the role of the curator of an artist’s estate? Please talk about the things you do in that capacity.


MM: The short answer, in this particular case, is anything and everything that needs getting done!


In seriousness, it is different for every situation. The role of an estate curator depends on many factors such as: how organized the artist was while alive, how involved the current executor is, what condition the archives and inventory are in, where the work is located, what media the artist worked in, and whether there is already an awareness of or market for the work. These all factor in to what needs to get done and how to do it.


In my case there was, and still is, so much to accomplish toward preserving and promoting Mildred’s legacy that I just try to chip away at it little by little. Issues I have dealt with in the past several years range from collections management needs – storage, conservation, documentation, etc. – to research – compiling exhibition history, inventory information, her bibliography – as well as developing exhibition proposals and creating other avenues of exposure for the work, such as programming.

Mildred Thompson, Radiation Explorations, 1994, Oil on canvas, 81.1 x 133.25 inches (206.1 x 338.5 cm) overall

© The Mildred Thompson Estate, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York 

DS: How did the exhibition at Galerie Lelong come about?


MM: The New Orleans Museum of Art purchased three pieces by Mildred through the Leah Chase Fund, which focused on acquiring more works by African American artists for the Museum’s permanent collection. Two pieces were on view in New Orleans hung next to a MacArthur Binnion painting, an artist who was represented by Galerie Lelong & Co., New York. The pieces caught the eye of Mary Sabbatino, the gallery’s vice president and director, who reached out to me months later saying that she couldn’t get the work out of her head. She asked that I organize a show for Mildred at the gallery in New York, and as she and her staff learned more about Mildred’s work and her incredible life story, Galerie Lelong asked to represent the estate. We were delighted to say the least!

Mildred Thompson, Untitled (Wood Picture), circa 1966, oil and found wood, 25 1/2" x 38 1/4" x 2 3/8"

Museum Purchase, Leah Chase Fund, 2016.50, New Orleans Museum of Art

DS: Do you think Mildred Thompson is a feminist artist? If so, how does this manifest itself in her work?


MM: Deanna, this question shows how well you know me! This is something I think a lot about coming from an artistic and curatorial background connected to feminist practice. Mildred would not have considered her work Feminist Art (and I use capitalization here purposefully). The work does not come out of the Feminist Art Movement in an intentional way. And she was very close with Audre Lorde and Kate Millet so she was certainly very aware of the Movement. But her work was not about a feminist identity or approach. I even posed the question to Kate Millet before she passed last spring and her answer was an emphatic, “No.”


That said, taking the edict Daniel Buren put to the fore, and that Hank Willis Thomas champions in his practice today that “all art is political,” then certainly this work can be evaluated through a feminist (lower case) lens. A black gay woman, purposefully not making work about being black, or gay, or a woman, is in itself a political act. Mildred knew she was making a contribution to American abstraction, which as we know and she knew all too well, is dominated by an almost mythical, Eurocentric male narrative. By making this work she is inserting her voice and expanding the language of Abstract Expressionism, so I feel comfortable making the curatorial argument that her pursuit was feminist in nature.

Mildred Thompson, Hysteresis III, 1991, Pastel on paper

30 x 22 inches (76.2 x 55.9 cm)

© The Mildred Thompson Estate, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York 

DS: Do identity politics have any relationship to the work of Thompson?


MM: No. Mildred was very proud to be a black woman, and certainly an artist’s biography cannot be extracted from the work, but she would say, “It is not about that.”


This is a quote from Mildred published in the 1980 exhibition catalog for “Forever Free: Art by African American Women 1862-1980” that may shed some light on her thinking about this issue:


With art, there are symbolic things that have to be learned to make work universal…you can’t limit who you communicate with… But (first) you have to know yourself. Everything I touch will be part Black and female—all my success and the things I have gotten are part of that.


DS: From the perspective of a curator, how does Thompson's having been an African-American lesbian abstract painter influence the reading of the work?


MM: You certainly do not need to know her biography to appreciate her imagery. Mildred intentionally used the language of abstraction for this reason. She could come to the work with her own concepts, but at the end of the day, the viewer will read into it what he/she will. She loved this, and believed meaning was layered and sometimes not always even fully understood by the artist. When one does learn about her biography, however, it can often augment the reading of her dynamic and confident mark making and her bold color and compositional choices. Most importantly, she was a powerhouse and that shows in the imagery.

Mildred Thompson, Untitled (Wood Picture), circa 1966, found wood, nails, paint, clothes hangers, 25 1/2" x 38 1/4" x 2 3/8", Museum Purchase, Leah Chase Fund, 2016.49, New Orleans Museum of Art

DS: What can you tell us about the Thompson’s choices of color and movement in her work?


MM: What I think is particularly striking in Mildred’s paintings is her symbiotic approach to form and color. Her shapes and lines, and their movement within a composition, take inspiration from cellular and cosmic sources, interpreting the phenomena of the universe in a personal language. She was a master colorist and her choices function metaphorically, psychologically, and physiologically. Her colors physically draw you in, as she understood color for its own electromagnetic energy, and together with the angles and placement of lines and marks she creates immersive atmospheres.


A few examples … Based on some level of scientific correlation she researched in combination with personal interpretation, she translated the energy of magnetic fields as yellow in the Magnetic Fields (1990-1992) series and radiation waves as blue in Radiation Exploration (1994-5) series. In 1996, she makes her largest series, Music of the Spheres, four triptychs whose palettes and forms are based on the vibrational frequency of planets’ orbits—Mars is red, Mercury green, Jupiter orange, and Venus yellow. In each, segmented forms are made by layering thick swaths of complementary or contrasting hues to create a vibratory intensity, one of either dissonance or harmony, that ultimately create illusions of grand space.

DS: What is the relationship between meaning and abstraction in Thompson’s work?


MM: I’ve read a few reviews in which Mildred’s work is referred to as “semi-abstract.” In some ways this feels accurate. The pieces are in no way scientific illustrations, but the imagery is an abstracted derivation, a personal interpretation of the patterns found under a microscope and through a telescope. Her work is an alchemic mix of theory and speculation. I think it imagines whatever harmony can be found in the spiritual and the material worlds, spaces that combine the intuitive and the factual. Often Mildred connects the seemingly distant worlds of science and metaphysics offering space for commonality and universality. This is where she felt we as viewers could collectively derive understanding.


DS: Who would you consider to be Thompson’s art historical predecessors? Which earlier artists are her points of reference? Whom did she speak about in terms of her work?


MM: Mildred’s influences were varied. She studied Pythagoras and Kepler, fairy tales and the old testament, early 20th century theosophers P.D. Ouspensky and Rudolph Steiner, quantum physics from relativity to string theory, and music from Beethoven and Bach to Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk. Her artistic influences were just as varied. She has cited Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Alma Thomas and Louis Nevelson pretty regularly, but there are others. She also wrote very beautifully about Isabel Bishop’s influence on her drawings and mark making, stating that Bishop helped her understand that drawing was not a lesser art form and could be a meditative process.


DS: Even though there are clearly strong European influences on Thompson’s work, she was drawn home to the US after thirteen years in Europe. Are there aspects of Thompson’s work that are quintessentially American, African-American, and female in addition to her connections to Europe?


MM: I think she might have asked, as a response to this question, “what is ‘quintessentially American, African American or female’”? She was about debunking the myths and proscriptions we assign and deconstructing categories.


I think Mildred Thompson absorbed and translated all that was around her. I think she was a woman of the world during a time of great change as well as creative and scientific advancement. She – as good artists do – internalized and borrowed from the world around her. She did not limit what she was attracted to for fear that it was not appropriate for her gender, race, nationality or age. Her view was long – looking both to the ancient past and to the future; and it was wide – looking deep into the earth and under the skin and far out into the cosmos. She did not like boxes, labels or restrictive frameworks. Her intrepid nature is evident in the boldness of the work and the breadth of her references.

[1] Descriptions and quotes taken from my class syllabi. c.1997/98.

Melissa Messina is an independent curator and curator of the Mildred Thompson Estate. She recently co-curated the exhibition Magnetic Fields, Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today, which opened at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City and traveled to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C. As the former Interim Executive Director at the SCAD Museum of Art, Messina organized the exhibition Mildred Thompson, Resonance: Selected Works from the 1990s. In 2014 she received a Creative Time | Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant for research on the life and work Mildred Thompson. Formerly as the Senior Curator at the Savannah College of Art and Design she curated exhibitions in Savannah and Atlanta, GA, as well as France and Hong Kong for numerous internationally acclaimed artists. She has also held positions at Flux Projects, Atlanta; ArtTable, New York; and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Messina is the co-curator of the 2018 Bermuda Biennial.

Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer.

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