I have been waiting to see a large selection of James Bishop’s paintings since the mid-1970s, ever since reading John Ashbery’s appraisal in a secondhand copy of Art News Annual 1966: “It is a shame that Bishop’s paintings, partly owing to his personal aloofness, seem destined for neglect in both New York and Paris, for he is one of the great original American painters of his generation.”
Who was this artist that Ashbery thought so highly of? My curiosity was further piqued when the only other substantial mention of him that I could find was by another poet and art critic, Carter Ratcliff. From various pieces Ashbery wrote, I learned that Bishop had gone to Black Mountain College in 1953, where he studied with Esteban Vicente, and that he liked the work of Robert Motherwell. In 1957 he went to Paris and didn’t return to New York until 1966, ostensibly missing a close-up view of the rise of Pop Art, Color Field painting and Minimalism, the whole caboodle of postwar American painting. Which is not to say that he didn’t know, care about or see American art, particularly by the Abstract Expressionists. Nor did his self-imposed exile in Paris prevent him from traveling to Italy and closely studying the work of artists as diverse as Cosimo Tura and Lorenzo Lotto. He also saw work by artists such as Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly in Paris.
At the same time, Ashbery, who lived in Paris during these years, seems to have been the only American critic of the period to champion Bishop. Was he right? Or was this one of those enthusiasms that poets are known to have that is better left forgotten? The fact that Ashbery wrote about Bishop again in 1979, when he was a critic for New York, suggests he didn’t harbor any reservations about his original assessment.
After seeing James Bishop, which is currently on view at David Zwirner (September 6–October 25, 2014), I would urge anyone who cares about what an artist can do with paint to go and immerse themselves in this beautiful, sensitive, astringent exhibition of eleven mostly square, human-scaled paintings in oil and four small works (all are less than six inches in height and width), done in oil and crayon on paper. The paintings were completed between 1962-63 and 1986, while the four works on paper are from 2012. Whether large or small, the works invite the viewer to look closely and to linger over them, to be absorbed by the full range of their subtle synthesis of structure, light and disintegration.
Born in Neosho, Missouri, in 1927, Bishop belongs to the generation that includes Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011). While he has expressed his admiration for their work, and, like them, was influenced by Abstract Expressionism, he clearly went his own way. Even though I hadn’t seen any of Bishop’s work, Ashbery’s recounting of his refusal to align himself with any of the styles of the times, from Minimalism and Color Field painting to Pop Art and Painterly Realism, got my attention. If anything, he seems to have learned from the various strains of postwar abstract art without being caught up in their ideologies.
As Ashbery observed, “Bishop has always been a Minimalist, but a sensitive one: the stripping down is obviously a decision of the heart, not the head.” (New York, May 21, 1979.) A deeply responsive contrarian who never aligned himself with any established aesthetic agenda or critical doctrine, Bishop rejected the certainty of Frank Stella’s dictum, “What you see is what you see,” and its denial of contradiction and doubt, in favor of ambiguity, particularly regarding the relationship between surface and space, and between form and dispersion. Furthermore, in “Artists should never be seen nor heard,” a 1993 conversation with Dieter Schwartz, Bishop states: “I never could do a kind of sixties painting in the Greenbergian sense, and I was a failure at it…” How wonderful! Bishop seems never to have fretted over the fact he could not and did not fit in. For many obvious reasons, I find this immensely heartening.
A number of paintings in the Zwirner exhibition suggests that Bishop disagreed fundamentally with Clement Greenberg, who believed that painting resists three-dimensionality and illusionism. While Bishop has said that he learned from Frankenthaler, he has never been a purist who either privileged one technique over another or strived for pure opticality. In addition, he liked ochers and browns, which he characterized as “inexpensive earth colors,” because they were “impure,” and had “associations to earth, blood, wine, shit etc.”
While Bishop’s list of associations suggests that he is a symbolist and, in that regard, allied with Motherwell, I think this would constitute a misunderstanding. What Bishop’s work does so powerfully and originally is hold a wide gamut of visual contradictions and ambiguities in tight proximity: the paintings blossom out of the various irresolvable conflicts that he sets in motion. Moreover, unlike many of the artists working in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, he didn’t believe that feelings, however inchoate, are superfluous to painting. Rather, he believed painting was a language that the viewer had to learn how to read; he wasn’t interested in delivering something the viewers already knew.
In “State” (1972), a glowing monochromatic square with tonalities falling somewhere among earth red, rust and dried blood, Bishop divides the top half of the painting into vertical and horizontal bands, which frame eight squares. Placed in the upper half, and held in place by the physical edges of the painting’s top and flanking sides, the ghostly bands float above a subtly inflected surface that we look at, as well as into, unable to settle comfortably in either domain. Moving between illusionism and surface, the space seems to expand and contract. Both the bands and the surface keep changing. Moreover, in certain areas, the washes of paint become a field in which a few pulverized particles are visible. Paint becomes becomes both a dried puddle and a disembodied light. “State” embodies a world where defining terms such as surface and illusionism, form and formlessness become hazy. Everything, the painting quietly underscores, is fleeting, a mirage. It seems to me that Bishop connects this visual experience to his philosophical understanding of reality and change.
Within the square format of “Maintenant” (1981), which is French for “now,” or the eternal and changing present, a steeple-like structure rises up from the painting’s bottom edge, slowly distinguishing itself from the gray wall of paint. Is the structure solid, made of light, or both? What about the paint surrounding the structure? Is it solid, made of air, or both? It seems to be both a solid object and a mirage, an architectural detail and a ghost. It is this duality that I find compelling and challenging. Is reality both a fleeting mirage and something graspable? What about the body, with its blood and shit? Is this too a mirage? A briefly inhabited form that time will soon scatter?
James Bishop continues at David Zwirner (537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 25.