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Jon Thompson, 1936-2016


Nicholas de Ville, Emeritus Professor of Visual Arts at Goldsmiths and member of AICA UK, marks the passing of artist, writer and academic Jon Thompson.


Jon Thompson, The Lyotard Suite - Stretch, 2014. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 135 x 185 cm. Image courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery.

Jon Thompson, The Lyotard Suite – Stretch, 2014. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 135 x 185 cm. Image courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery.

It is with great sadness that I report the death of Jon Thompson. By his example directly and, and indirectly, by the reach of his influence, he was certainly one of the most important figures of the British art world in the last decades of the 20th century. That influence was as far-reaching as the aspects of the art world that he turned to his attention: artist, writer, curator and educationalist.  He was a prodigy: generous, willful, blessed with a superabundance of talent. In some senses too much, for he was ever restless, only finding a settled métier for his art in the last decade or so of his life. But that restlessness, welded to his other gifts, made him a spellbinding exponent of the importance of art. He was a challenge to accepted notions in everything he did. His mercurial talents were well known by his fellow students at the Royal Academy and as soon as he graduated he was showing at that hotbed of radical British art in the 1960s, the Rowan Gallery. He had also a vocation for teaching and by 1970 he had been appointed the head of painting at Goldsmiths’ College. Over the next two and a half decades this was to be his test-bed for many of his ideas. Not for him the conventional upward career path of an academic. He only accepted posts of seniority in order to get done those things he saw needed to be done. He was unhappy if his role kept him away from the studios and workshops, or prevented him being engaged in the everyday discourses of art. Over the years he went from head of painting to principal of the whole School of Art, then demoted himself to head of the Postgraduate Fine Art programme, then, after two years, to being a lecturer on the undergraduate Fine Art course and, finally, in 1987, took on the role which, in many respects, he had occupied the entire time: being head of Fine Art.

The student-centred educational experience he engineered at Goldsmiths’ is famous for having produced the yBas, but that is journalistic shorthand for what he created there. Artist-students of every hue found first succour and then stimulation and finally challenge there. It was a case of “all styles served here”. In seminars and discussions he would be at pains to draw out the views of others, but he had a keen sense for when a prevailing judgement was developing, and as it did so he would often turn it on its head with a well-honed counter-argument. He was quixotic and could be chimerical, but since he was an artist-provocateur in the Duchampian mould, this was not to be surprised at. He was drawn to the pataphysicians, possessed a Bedlington terrier that looked like a lamb, and had a spell of painting metaphysical works with an air of a 17th c. Flemish still-life about them. At different times he conceived of an opera and the novel as the perfect vehicle for his ideas. He adored Arte Povera and visited many of its chief exponents in their studios. He is credited with being one of the first heads of art school to break down the barriers between, and dispose of the traditional distinctions between, the mediums of art. His genius was not just in doing this (others had a similar idea by the beginning of the 70s), rather it was in populating the idea (in the form of part-time visiting lecturers) with a brilliant changing cast of artists and critics, some of whom would have given the average head of fine art palpitations. They came and went as their careers developed; many taken away by success. Jon Thompson wanted intellectual ferment and he scoured galleries and studios looking for it. And while he was doing so he developed a commanding understanding of where the aesthetic currents were taking art. This he put to use in curating important exhibitions. He made a major contribution to the staging of the 1984 ‘British Art Show’ and went on to curate two seminal reveries on the condition of the sculptural in contemporary art, ‘Falls the Shadow’ (1986) and ‘Gravity and Grace’ (1993) at the Hayward Gallery. He wrote brilliantly in support of his curatorial ideas. Lucid and eloquent, erudite, delightfully polemical, he remained always foremost an artist, which gave him certain permissions. To be partisan, yes, but most importantly to question the descriptive and analytical powers of language over the visual.

By the early 1990s times were changing. Employment legislation was eating away at the old laissez-faire employment practices that enabled him to bring the many artists into the mix that his vision of a liberal art education required. Goldsmiths was being fully assimilated into the University of London and protocol required that senior staff apply to discover whether their achievements were sufficient to warrant the awarding of a professorship. Jon Thompson considered that his record of achievement was self-evident. He was right. Due process decreed otherwise and he declined to apply. Then in 1992 the head of Fine Art post at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht became vacant. At that time it had the same annual budget as the department at Goldsmiths’ and one tenth of the number of students. For six years it provided the perfect arena in which educational principles he had developed at Goldsmiths could be realised, this time with a continental scope. Eventually times changed here too and he came back to Britain to be head of Postgraduate Fine Art at Middlesex University, but the art school as canvas was by this time too straitened to give him the scope for the kind of educational experience he believed in. Retirement beckoned and he moved to Sandwich to pursue his painting, but not before publishing his great primer on painting, How To Read A Modern Painting (2006), and realising his final major curatorial project, ‘Inner Worlds Outside’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Here he pushed to an extreme that talent rare in the art world of juxtaposing artists in order to bring congruities – and questions – to life by putting the accepted art of the avant-garde into close proximity with Outsider art. From then on he devoted his time to his own painting, exhibiting regularly at the Anthony Reynolds gallery. The tenor of these late abstract paintings surprised many with their hermetic fields of colour, subtle spaciality and buoyant colours. His collected writings were published by Ridinghouse in 2011. In 2015 Michael Craig-Martin invited him to show one of his paintings in the central room of his hang of the Royal Academy summer exhibition, a tribute from an old co-conspirator. It is a fitting place to leave Jon Thompson, back in the building from where he had launched his career in 1960, painting hard-edged abstracts, about to leave for the British School in Rome, and his beloved Italy.

Nicholas de Ville

Emeritus Professor of Visual Arts

Goldsmiths, University of London