Robert Farris Thompson, born December 30, 1932, was the Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art, on the faculty since 1965, and Master of Timothy Dwight College, at Yale University, 1978 until 2010. He passed away on November 29, 2021, at 88 years of age.
Professor Robert Farris Thompson – “Who is this man,” I thought when I first met him. It was around 1974, and I was dutifully cataloguing slides at the Eliot Elisofon Archives, Museum of African Art, as a young master’s student, and new archivist. He rushed into the room, gasping for images of Africa, and awe-struck by everything he saw, exclaiming in Yoruba, complete with expletives, wild with enthusiasm, and finding gold mines of evidence everywhere. I was a student of dance and art, with pretensions of becoming an art historian, and a few years later, the head of my dance department, Shirley Wimmer, called me up with great excitement, saying she had just heard a lecture by Robert Farris Thompson, and knowing my desire to get into African art, she said “You have to go to Yale.”
Robert Farris Thompson was a legendary professor of the history of art in Africa and the African Diaspora in the Western Hemisphere and throughout the world. Yale University was his home throughout his adult life, and Thompson and Yale have been synonymous for thousands of Yale graduates for a half century. From Yale, he received his BA in 1955, his MA in 1961, and his PhD in 1965. He studied for the doctorate under Professor George Kubler, then a specialist in Spanish art. But his heart was in African American and Latin American culture. His dissertation fieldwork was conducted among the Yoruba in Nigeria because he wanted to find the sources of African American arts and culture. He began teaching in the History of Art in 1961, and was later honored as the Col. John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art. His undergraduate course, “From West Africa to the Black Americas: The Black Atlantic Visual Tradition,” was considered part of the tradition for any Yale College student. From 1978 to 2010 he served as Master of Timothy Dwight College, the longest run of any serving master. TD students revered him as “Master T,” and the College produced sweatsuits showing a caricature of Thompson as a muscular bodybuilder, with the word “ashe” – the Yoruba term for “inner power.”
Probably his most pivotal piece of writing was the article in which he explored “An Aesthetic of the Cool,” appearing in African Forum, in 1966. Thompson is known internationally for his continually groundbreaking publications, beginning with the catalogue for an exhibition at UCLA based upon his PhD dissertation, entitled Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA (1971). In 1974, UCLA and the National Gallery of Art, sponsored an exhibition that revolutionized thinking about African art and culture, with a book entitled African Art in Motion: Icon and Act in the Collection of Katharine Coryton White. Again, for an exhibition at the National Gallery in 1981, he published, with Joseph Cornet, The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds. In 1984, drawing upon his decades of lecturing on the arts of Africa trans-Atlantic world, he published one of the most influential works on the continuity of African art in the new world, entitled Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. His Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas, in 1993, for the Museum for African Art, New York, accompanied the exhibition that traveled around the world to great acclaim as an examination of ensembles of sculpture never before considered by art historians.
Thompson was born to a wealthy El Paso, Texan, family, son of Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, a surgeon, and Virginia Hood Thompson, a patron of the arts, and received a patrician education attending secondary school at Phillips Academy Andover, in Massachusetts, before admission to Yale. But he was anything but orthodox, despite his tweed sport coats and penny loafers. As a “Yalie,” he would slip out of New Haven and go down to New York to the smoky Black jazz clubs, where he got to know all the early jazz greats. He started out, after getting his BA in 1955, traveling to Paris, with the hope of becoming a jazz player. He later championed such musicians as Tito Puente and Coltrane. His earliest article was on “Afro-Cuban dance and music,” published in 1958, followed by another in 1961 on “African Music.” He wrote a book on Tango, and his last teaching years were devoted to his course, “New York Mambo: Microcosm of Black Creativity.”
His art history was published in the traditional academic venues, but also in The Village Voice, The Fat Abbot, Rolling Stone, and Saturday Review. Among his many exhibitions, two of his most monumental were at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC: African Art in Motion, 1974; and The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds, 1981. He was recognized by the Arts Council of the African Studies Association with its “Leadership Award” in 1995. He was awarded the College Art Association’s inaugural “Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Art Writing” in 2003, and was named CAA’s Distinguished Scholar in 2015. In 2007, Thompson was honored with the “Outstanding Contribution to Dance Research” award by the Congress on Research in Dance. In 2021, Thompson was awarded the honorary degree – his fourth Yale degree — Doctor of Humanities, by the President of Yale University. The College Art Association aptly described him as a “towering figure in the history of art, whose voice for diversity and cultural openness has made him a public intellectual of resounding importance.”
Long before “globalism” was even a word, he was preaching it in his classroom. The first day in class, the students were shown a slide of the world which Thompson zoomed in on until he reached Tokyo, Japan, and this was his springboard to upset all the preconceived notions about a bounded and traditional Africa. If he could find Africanisms in Japan, it was not such a leap to the Americas. He coined the term, “The Black Atlantic.” His forceful 1983 work, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, was the culmination of his lectures at Yale, and was as much a praise song to African American culture as a tediously-researched, groundbreaking work of scholarship.
No one who ever sat through a Thompson lecture ever forgot it. It was an extravaganza of masterful drum playing, dance, song, and all the poetry and cadence of a southern preacher in the Black church. His performance never diminished — even when he was stuck in a little seminar room with three of us graduate students around a table, our jaws dropped to the floor. He would assign us readings in any language – You don’t read Dutch? — get a dictionary. He would punctuate his lectures with Haitian Creole, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Kikongo, Portuguese, Spanish, Yoruba, and other languages, without translation. He once told me the secret to his success: “I am shameless.” His kiKongo wasn’t perfect, and he didn’t have a dancer’s body, but he never let that stop him from going full out to learn every tango and mambo dance step, every multimeter rhythm, every chant and praise song that he could. He didn’t care if you liked it. He liked it, and that was abundantly obvious as he reveled in all that he did.
Bob will be greatly missed by his dozens of Yale protégés now prominent in the fields of African and African American Art, thousands of Yale College graduates, and the world of lovers of African and African American music, dance, and art. A memorial service will be held in the Spring at Yale University.
— Frederick John Lamp, Yale University PhD, 1982; Retired Curator of African Art, Yale University Art Gallery, and Lecturer in Theater Studies and The History of Art, Yale University
In Remembrance of Robert Farris Thompson
I first met Robert Farris Thompson when I was a student at UCLA. He had come to campus to give a lecture for the opening of his Yoruba exhibition Black Gods and Kings. I got to help him set up his slides in the auditorium sound booth and all of a sudden he just started drumming on the counter. I started drumming along with him and next thing I knew he invited me on stage to drum with him in the middle of his talk. As he moved through his lecture he presented ideas and issues I rarely heard other art historians engage, and I was honestly in awe. Two Yoruba gentlemen were sitting in the front row, and they liked what he was saying too, nodding as he repeatedly made critical points. Of all the things that impressed me, what captured me most completely was his ability to demonstrate and bring to life the fundamental relevance of art to social life and human imagination. His talk was liberating.
Shortly thereafter I moved to New Haven and become one of his graduate students, and then I became a graduate assistant for his big African survey course. That was a transformative experience, not just for me but for the huge number of undergraduates who found themselves most fortunate to be taking such a class. He brought artists up from New York city to share their knowledge and experiences with us. He maintained a huge class bulletin board for the class that was mind boggling in its dense, rich, near chaotic presentation of words and images. He had a penetrating consciousness that virtually compelled you to think. As his student, he seemed to me a paradox: rigorous and demanding and very attuned to scholarly detail on the one hand, while simultaneously offering a freedom to explore that I found exhilarating. He made boundaries seem ripe with the potential to be challenged. He made you work, very hard. But he made you feel tremendous. I loved art history before I met Robert Farris Thompson. Being his student stretched the discipline’s worthiness for me in wonderful ways.
He has never stopped being all that to me. And more. Once after I finished my degree and was off teaching, I came back to New Haven to give a lecture. He was then the Master of Timothy Dwight College and known to all as Master T. We went to coffee and then he showed me his Master’s living quarters. There were several bedrooms, each with a double bed. And piled high on all of them were books and articles and notes and photographs; an enormous jumble of material, some quite rare and hard to find, with each bed’s treasures dedicated to a different research project. He kept vocabulary flash cards in a number of languages in his bathroom. He never stopped working with those flash cards or on each bed’s lush array of data. Put that together with the ways he totally submerged himself with people in the cultures where the arts he loved were made, and it is hardly a surprise that his research was spectacular, his writing evocative.
I very often think of RFT, and what he gave me. He made it clear, all the time, that you should understand the people whose art you study as full of sophisticated and complex ideas, rich practices and significant experiences, all worthy of our attention. His sense of humanity, his profound dedication, his ability to balance philosophy and practicality, his mind as fertile as minds can get: these qualities will always define my memories of a person I deeply cared for.
– Patrick McNaughton