Some mythologies of modernity are portable. Literary America, from the Ambulance Corps to Sal Paradise, is built on the road. “A burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here,” is how John Steinbeck puts it in Travels with Charley. Painting, however, requires a place. Maybe it’s just that the materials are heavier. While nomadic writers set the course of the 20th century, the modern art world was wedded to the capital city. The traditional itinerary goes: Paris, bombs, New York.
But sometimes the oxygen masks drop down and this stale passage gets a breath of fresh air. This year’s Independent 20th Century will showcase the work of two American artists whose lives and legacies were defined by European travel—against the flow of the supposed one-way street of modernism.
When the painter Jack Youngerman died in 2020 at the age of 93, his New York Times obituary described him as a leader of the post-painterly abstraction generation. A thrilling series of early work, presented at the fair by Galerie Hervé Bize, opens a window into a time before all that. In works from the 1950s to 1963, we see an artist setting off on his own path, inspired by all that met his roving eye. The transatlantic racination of an American art practice.
Born in 1926, from a modest background, Youngerman didn’t encounter art until the G.I. Bill allowed him to enroll in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he became fast friends with Ellsworth Kelly. They soaked it up: Matisse’s paper cutouts, Jean Arp, Kandinsky’s woodcuts. The landscape itself, of nature and artists. The pair journeyed to Auvers-sur-Oise to place flowers on the grave of Vincent van Gogh. All of this led Youngerman toward a new visual lexicon.
He didn’t paint from life, though his iconic abstractions imply myriad natural forms: petal, leaf, wavelet. “I’ve never abstracted anything in my life,” he told Artforum’s Barbara Rose in 1966. “I’ve nothing against it, but nature doesn’t furnish me with ‘subjects.’ I can invent a much greater variety of shapes that I can use than I could ever get from observation.”
Instead, the four works on paper from 1952, made shortly before he distanced himself from the Parisian scene, show the influences of the avant-garde chattering in place. Youngerman was, he said, using hard-edged Constructivism “in a lyrical way.” These intensely graphic pieces are lyrical, jazzy. They bristle with anxious energy, youthfully at odds with the tranquil elegance of his later paintings. As such they are a gleeful ode to early work, to that time in an artist’s life when everything is up for grabs, no direction off limits. Poignantly, you can also see the paths he didn’t take: potential alternatives for the canon of mid-century American painting.
In 1956, Youngerman returned to the United States on the recommendation of the art dealer Betty Parsons. He set up a studio at Coenties Slip, the Manhattan warehouse district also home to contemporaries Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, and his old friend Kelly. It was where Youngerman made the paintings that would be shown in MoMA’s landmark 1959 exhibition Sixteen Americans, and where he would develop his own field of abstraction: a gentler, more floral variety than Abstract Expressionism, and one permanently influenced by his years in Europe.
If Youngerman’s early experiences of life and art abroad indelibly marked the paintings he would later make in New York, the story of Mildred Thompson was defined by a constant coming and going, a restless dance beyond the capitals of the art world.
Thompson was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1936. Her studies took her from Howard University in Washington, DC, to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, to the Brooklyn Museum School in New York. While she would go on to spend much of her career in the United States, mainly in Atlanta, where she taught at the Atlanta College of Art, it was in Europe that she forged her artistic language.
Thompson went to West Germany in 1958, first to study at Hamburg’s art academy, and then, after a brief, difficult period in New York, she returned to live and work in an estate outside Düren for 13 years. This self-imposed exile from America was partly born of necessity: a response to the harsh climate for Black women artists of her generation. She sidestepped the anxieties and violence of the civil rights era, as well as the persistent question of what it meant to be a Black artist—especially one more interested in abstraction than in ideologically explicit representational work.
Thompson’s varied practice was inspired by (white, male) artists like Paul Klee and Kandinsky. Working across painting, sculpture, and music, she sought to visualize the invisible. Most often, she began with an idea and then went in search of a medium. Even within a single medium her output varied widely.
There are the Wood Pictures, which pull together the worlds of the Lower East Side, where Thompson first noticed the aesthetic power of the crates piled outside of stores, and of the German country estate where she kept three studios, with ample space to explore the potential of wood. Her later series Magnetic Fields and Radiation Explorations are large-scale, operatic abstractions that vibrate with quantum physics.
And then there are the Window Paintings. This series, begun in 1975, represents a hinge in Thompson’s career. Though Germany had given her the space and support to develop as an artist, the long winters began to get to her. A grant from the National Endowment of the Arts allowed her to work in Ybor City, in her home state of Florida, bringing color and light flooding back.
Presented at Independent 20th Century by Galerie Lelong & Co., these works show Thompson doing what she does best: using abstraction as aperture. All the paintings date from 1977 and are on the small side of her output, as if to suggest that a landscape is something that could be packed in your suitcase and taken with you. Thompson thinks through space with color, suggesting grassy horizons, or striped curtains rippling in the breeze.
These playful, tempting oils turn the picture plane into the boundary between interior and exterior. When viewed in light of Thompson’s peripatetic life, they become sites of both longing and opportunity. For Thompson, like Youngerman, America was a place you had to leave before you could inhabit it. Luckily for us, they didn’t stay put, here or elsewhere.
Hunter Braithwaite is a writer, editor, and consultant based in New York. He was the founding editor of Cultural Counsel’s Affidavit and the Miami Rail, and has written about art for numerous publications, including Artforum, BOMB, Modern Painters, The Paris Review Daily, and The White Review. He received his MFA in fiction from New York University.
Learn more about Galerie Hervé Bize’s presentation of Jack Youngerman at Independent 20th Century.
Learn more about Galerie Lelong & Co.’s presentation of Mildred Thompson at Independent 20th Century.