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Mildred Thompson's "Magnetic Fields."

Review: Spelman recalls abstract artist Mildred Thompson as citizen of Atlanta

Art is a technology. It has the power to give a visual language to the natural phenomenon that we experience but cannot quite comprehend or explain. Mildred Thompson (1936–2003) was an artist who moved beyond the figurative and into an abstract visual language meant to express the immaterial. Through liberal gestures of line and color, she explored the universals of life from the lens of biology and physical science. The movement and motion she expressed on canvas blurred the lines between the physical and the metaphysical, giving visuals to such scientific processes as radiation, sound waves and magnetic fields.

Abstract artist, poet, musician and arts journalist Mildred Thompson in Atlanta in 1988. (Photo by the Mildred Thompson Estate)

Thompson, an American abstract artist, spent much of her early career in Germany and France in response to racial and gender discrimination in the United States. In 1986, at about age 50, she joined Spelman College as an artist-in-residence, living in Atlanta until her death and earning acclaim for her painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, writing and musical exploration.

A exhibition of her work, Mildred Thompson: The Atlanta Years, 1986–2003, is on view through December 7 at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, where it was co-curated by museum director Andrea Barnwell Brownlee and Melissa Messina of the Thompson estate. This is the first large-scale, interdisciplinary solo exhibition of Thompson’s work in Atlanta.

It features more than 30 paintings, prints, drawings, writings and ephemera created during the final years of her life here. It follows her inclusion in the traveling group exhibition Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction (2017) that illuminated the nonrepresentational work of women artists of color. Her beliefs on art and representation have influenced a network of Atlanta artists still living and working here today.

You’re immediately confronted by a large-scale oil painting titled Magnetic Fields (1991) upon entering the Spelman Museum’s main gallery. The painting consumes the room and commands attention. Undulating circular patterns sprawl out across the canvas in reds and oranges, with emphasis from dramatic lines of teal. The painting seems to capture movement, unsettling the space and exercising the eyes. Pulsing golds and yellows from a burning ember surround the lines, creating depth and intensity. The painting seems charged with radiating energy that leaps from canvas to viewer.

Detail of “Radiation Explorations 12” from 1994 (Photo by TK Smith)

While in Atlanta, Thompson taught at Agnes Scott and Morehouse colleges and, most notably, at the Atlanta College of Art (later absorbed by SCAD). The exhibition features samples of her midterm exams and syllabi for such courses as “Making the Invisible Visible.”

The artist was also a poet and journalist. Published and handwritten examples of her poetry are displayed here, as well as old issues of the Atlanta-based quarterly art magazine Art Papers, where she was an associate editor. She was also a composer and musician, playing for several years in an Atlanta band called We Do Blues. Her black Gibson Gothic guitar hangs on a wall with samples of her lyrics while her unsettlingly antiseptic electronic compositions play throughout the gallery.

This show has a personal and gentle touch. Instead of attempting a full retrospective that leans into Thompson’s personal life or critically analyzes her work, it focuses on her many contributions to various Atlanta communities. The exhibition defines her Atlanta work as “prolific” but doesn’t really explain why. It attempts, instead, to illustrate Thompson’s brilliance by showing her practice and mastery of several art forms. If you want a deeper dive into any single practice, you may be left wanting.

Assorted works on paper. Mildred Thompson did not call them sketches. (Photo by TK Smith)

You will leave, however, with a strong sense of her voice. An impressive amount of ephemera converses with her artwork here, giving a fuller sense of who Mildred Thompson was. In addition to lithographs, etchings and drawings, the show includes handwritten letters, notes and photographs from Thompson’s papers (on loan from Emory University and her estate). It also includes a 20-minute series of excerpts from an extended interview Thompson did with California-born artist and citizen of the world Cheryl Whitestone in 1999. Viewers can see Thompson’s iconic purple Afro and hear her speak for herself on such topics as life, science and spirituality.

Spelman Museum rarely presents original exhibitions, which makes Mildred Thompson: The Atlanta Years critical to its legacy and that of the artist. Although Thompson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and traveled the world, this exhibition argues that she should be understood as a citizen of Atlanta, the city she made her final home.