Painter James Bishop has died at age 93. His lyrical abstractions juxtapose fields of color, or expanses of primed and painted canvas. He often worked on found materials, displaying a careful attention to his substrate’s surface. In an essay for our October 2008 issue, artist and critic Joe Fyfe responded to a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago that centered Bishop’s work on paper. “Bishop’s paintings on paper arise from a carefully determined process and an openness to accident,” Fyfe writes. “Working on a small scale, often in series, he achieves a gentle grandeur.” We present the essay in full below. —Eds.
One little work was enough. Sol Le Witt first mentioned painter James Bishop to James Rondeau in the late 1990s. Rondeau—then employed at Hartford’s Wadsworth Athenaeum and now the curator of contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago—would come to know the work only from reproductions until the winter of 2004, when, at a collector’s home, he saw one of Bishop’s diminutive paintings on paper. Impressed, Rondeau began to plan his own exhibition, eventually blending it with a European show that was already in formation. The resulting exhibition came to Chicago as part of the Art Institute’s “Focus” series. “James Bishop, Paintings on Paper 1959–2007” featured more than one hundred works on paper and three large paintings. A 1993 retrospective traveled to major museums in Switzerland, Germany, and France, but passed this country by. The Chicago show finally allowed US audiences to enjoy a sustained look at Bishop’s elusive brand of restrained painterliness.
Bishop, now eighty, belongs to a generation of American abstract painters who spent vital time in Paris during the course of their careers. John Ashbery, in an article on Joan Mitchell in ARTnews [April 1965], referred to Bishop, Mitchell, Norman Bluhm, Kimber Smith, and Shirley Jaffe as apatrides, or stateless persons. He described their existence in Paris as one of exile—from both the cultural life of Paris and the commercial side of artistic life in New York. These Americans appeared to have been drawn to the “indifference” of Paris, Ashbery wrote, and he suggested that artists “ripen more slowly there,” gaining intelligence and benefiting from introspection.
After settling in Paris in 1958, Bishop moved to the isolated town of Blévy, about thirty miles outside of the city, in 1973. He has lived there since in a small former presbytery, returning to New York, where he still keeps a loft, only rarely. His years in France have been punctuated by frequent visits to Italy, where he studies Renaissance paintings. (His favorite painter, he has said, is Lorenzo Lotto.) After his remove to the stone house in Blévy, Bishop gardened, read widely in philosophy and literature, and listened to classical music. He showed fairly regularly in America, mostly in New York, from the 1960s through the ’80s. Individual works have often cropped up at art fairs, but he has not until now had a one-person show in the US for over twenty years. He exhibits more frequently in Europe, though his art is found in a good many US collections.
Originally from Missouri, Bishop is one of several Americans (others include Jaffe and Mitchell) who showed with Jean Fournier, perhaps the most artistically influential dealer in postwar Paris. The Fournier gallery also exhibited European painters such as Claude Viallat and Simon Hantaï, who were associated with the French Support/Surface group. This movement, the most poetically generous of the many reductive abstractionist tendencies of the 1960s, proposed a radical concentration on the material attributes of painting while allowing for allusive content. Fournier often referred to Matisse’s last works, brightly colored paper cutouts pinned to fabric, as containing hints of the future of painting. Many of the gallery’s artists defined painting through formal problems regarding materiality and color.
The Paris-based painter Jerome Boutterin once characterized for me the difference between American and French painters as a contrast between the industrial and the artisanal. Americans, he observed, tend to define painting through production, and an artist’s comprehension of painting is proven through repeated variations. French artists concentrate on how a painting is crafted and on the manner in which one goes about beginning. The French “artisanal” inclination has clearly influenced Bishop’s oil paintings on canvas, judging by the three shown in Chicago. In Early (1967, 76½ inches square), for example, the surface is divided horizontally, with bare primed canvas above and a painted area below, the latter executed in a method Bishop has been developing since around 196. As he describes it, that practice ensures “the painting’s participation, and I like the artist’s hand being there and not there.”1
Bishop’s method is to pour paint onto the horizontally placed support, coaxing it over the surface by lifting up the edges of the canvas. Then, using a straight-edged implement, he limits the paint’s expansion, so that the effect is at once allover and demarcated, sensual and disciplined. The color that results after several such paint applications—in the case of Early, it’s a complex green—also seems to depict a kind of scaffolding, a byproduct of Bishop’s having manipulated the paint where the poured areas overlap. Some have interpreted this subtly luminous iconic framework, which appears in most of Bishop’s paintings, as a reflexive device—it might seem a ghostly representation of the stretcher bars—but Bishop has stated that he was simply “dividing up the canvas for [the sake of] more complexity.”2
Interestingly for visitors to the Chicago exhibition, Brice Marden’s Rodeo (1971), which is similar to Bishop’s Early in size and in its light above/dark below division, was installed on a nearby wall. Made of oil and wax on two canvases, Marden’s painted square is physically divided across the middle by a narrow horizontal gap. The compressed expressionism of the heavily worked opaque surface unifies the picture plane through a density that seems intent on rivaling the physical presence of sculpture, a fact that may reflect that medium’s dominance of the New York art scene in the early 1970s. By comparison, Early appears clear, economical, and less fusty. Though Bishop’s painted surface is as dense as Marden’s, it is more precisely articulated and light-filled. It appeared as a serene alternative to the turgidity of the Marden.
Bishop has not made any paintings on canvas since 1987. He has concentrated on small studies (ranging from approximately 8 inches square down to 2 by 3 inches) on paper, thin board, or, occasionally, found supports such as the backs of exhibition announcement cards. Emily Dickinson’s favorite surface for writing poetry was the inner face of a used envelope, and Bishop’s works on paper compare to her verse: seemingly evanescent inventions that turn out to be as recalcitrant as driven nails. The compositions on paper—he calls them “paintings”—generally seem to describe a foggy atmosphere surrounding a limned structure or aerie. Though nominally abstract, most of the works flirt with something pictorial or figurative, often suggesting house shapes, drawn vectors, and Roman numerals, or, less commonly, forms derived from nature. Bishop has described these paintings as having a “late, somewhat elegiac, autumn-twilight kind of mood.”3
That vague description belies Bishop’s art-historical, literary, and musical erudition. In an interview published in the catalogue for the 1993 European retrospective, he manages within a few paragraphs to comfortably quote Barnett Newman, gloss a text by Blanchot on Mallarmé, cite from a book on Schoenberg and end with a saying from Alban Berg. An often-quoted comment by Bishop—that he sees himself as a member “of the quieter branch” of Abstract Expressionism—is helpful as another entry point to his work: he was particularly taken with Rothko and Motherwell, perhaps the two most deeply cultured artists of the group.
Installed in Chicago, Bishop’s works seemed to converse easily with the art of the museum. The paintings on paper had an affinity with the Chinese ceramics on view at the entrance to the galleries. A mottled brown and lavender jar from the Tang dynasty was on the path that Bishop took every day during his exhibition’s installation and was, according to Rondeau, of special interest to him. Its stoneware gray-green glaze, called “tea dust,” seems an apt description of Bishop’s complex and muted color, and the glazing technique, in which a transparent color is poured over a vessel and sometimes suspends itself upon it, is similar to Bishop’s partially hands-off process of pouring semi-transparent color across a support.
All the works on paper are executed with oil paint (Bishop describes his feeling for oil as being almost “like patriotism”4) in luminous burnt orange or hard-to-pin-down shades of green, brown and gray that remind one of sand, silt, ash, slate, and moonlit sky. Earth colors attract him, he said in an interview, because of their impurity.5 There are occasional freehand marks or ruled lines made with graphite or crayon.
The earliest painting on paper in the exhibition, an untitled work of 1959 (19¼ by 25¼ inches), is unusual for its relatively bright and polychromatic palette, saturated with dark blues, dark greens, and thick black, the latter outlining the perimeter and enclosing patches of pastel green and light salmon. Thinned oil paint soaked into the paper atomizes the surface for an airy effect. This breathing ground is even more apparent in Homage to Cezanne (1961, 19⅝ by 25½ inches), which is mostly made up of a brushy grayish blue and a vegetal green, and seems to trace an outline of Mont Sainte-Victoire. There are tiny specks of red paint on the surface, as if the paper had been near an accidental splash.
One small group of works (circa 1970) imposes ruled lines in colors—some gray, others like saffron or margarine—over white painted areas on square sheets of fine-art paper. Another group of sixteen works (1972–75) constitutes a true series. Untitled and executed on squarish, cream-colored card stock that Bishop found in a dumpster on Lispenard Street near his loft in Lower Manhattan, each piece has an element adhered to the surface that aligns with the center of the bottom edge. Seeming to have composed the series with equal parts neglect and nurture, Bishop plays out a sequence of themes and variations with those collaged paper scraps, which include variously sized rectangles and, in one case, a triangle. Twice he used newspaper clippings bearing the word “stone” (apparently his only flirtation with collage as concrete poetry). In a particularly muscular fragment of one oil-painted piece of paper, two rivulet “legs” of gray-brown paint flex powerfully within a square window. Rust-colored paint or glue bleeds from the edges of many of the collage elements.
Beginning with this group of paintings and in his subsequent works, Bishop found an intensity that eluded him in the larger works on canvas. The internal scale of each painting on paper seems to possess the monumentality of certain photographs of urban architecture that present a scaled-down reality as opposed to a self-conscious miniaturization. There is an air of seriousness or, more accurately, a straightforward regard, which is markedly different from, say, the twee irony of Richard Tuttle.
By the 1980s, establishing the chronology of Bishop’s work becomes difficult. A number of paintings bear no date, others read 1980–90, and still others offer specific dates but show no discernible stylistic progression. Accordingly, many of the works on paper in Chicago were arranged by theme. An undated series called “Tree” (I-IV), for example, plays variations on a limned vertical. In Tree II, tobacco-colored oil paint has been allowed to pool and dry on the surface of a vertical sheet, its edges remaining exposed. Two lines drawn in parallel creep up near the center of the composition and then veer to the left. One line continues off the paper while its twin seems to collapse into a smudge. Then both appear to reenter at an oblique angle, as if beginning to describe a structure before abandoning the task. Tree III is on a horizontal sheet that has been soaked in a dark turmeric color. Two spindly parallel graphite lines ascend to the right of center and are arrested by a heavier scribble near the top. The eloquence of each of these small works arises from the contrast between the carefully uninflected atmospheric ground and the quivering, scrawled lines.
Also on hand in abundance were Bishop’s signature paintings, papers mostly covered with brackish grays. An untitled work of 1983 (6 by 6½ inches), for example, presents a green/gray field that appears to have been poured on after the underlying gray/tan field had dried. The second color was manipulated to create an X shape in the exposed gray/tan field. The X, which may be a remnant from the phantom structural interstices of the earlier paintings, is suspended in the upper half of the composition. Below and to the right of this shape are what look like brush swipes, which perhaps came later, when it appeared that the topmost paint was too dark. As with many of Bishop’s works, this painting seems to represent a fraying emblem, a typeface or architectural notation.
Most of the works exhibited were simply framed on the walls, but there were also two vitrines. One held “Untitled (Playing Cards),” a series of twenty-five oil-on-cardboard paintings (4½ by 3 inches each) that also feature the X motif. Here, too, it consistently appears as a negative shape, surrounded by deep royal blue paint that may have been runny and fiddled with by tilting, and perhaps moved around with a stick or a spoon, so that the edges of the paint take the form of shaggy silhouettes. Bishop has stated that he found a greater complexity in the later smaller works than in the paintings on canvas, but perhaps another way into his aims is to be found in his formative years as an artist, when he attended Black Mountain College. Though he discounts John Cage and his programmatic “chance” operations as an influence,6 Cage was a strong presence there, and it might be productive to understand Bishop as involved in an operation not unlike certain of Cage’s early works for piano.
Cage’s compositions for “prepared” piano (objects were placed between and on the strings) muted and flattened the coloristic aspects of the instrument’s sound. This achieved a more percussive effect and aJso made the listener more aware of exactly what the piano is: an object made of wood strung with wire under various degrees of tension. Moreover, Cage’s prepared piano compositions were a rebuke to the high tradition of pianistic music. From this point, it was a small step to writing compositions for toy piano.
Not enough has been made of the implied critique of painting that has developed in Bishop’s works on paper, which constitute a continuation of painting by other means. In his rejection of the stretched support, of contrasting hues (the coloristic), of image, and (largely) of artistic progression, and even in his ascetic but rangy, happenstance-welcoming attitude toward his practice, we can see Bishop’s project as serving an attentive openness, similar to Cage’s series of works that demanded modifications to the piano. In both cases, understatement is not to be understood as a virtue in and of itself, but as the outcome of soulful tinkering and a fundamental desire to be present in the work.
1 Maurice Poirier and Jane Nicol, “The ‘60s in Abstract: 13 Statements and an Essay,” Art in America, October 1983, pp. 134–35, quoted in Focus: James Bishop, Paintings on Paper 1959-2007, exhibition pamphlet, Art Institute of Chicago, 2008, n.p.
2 James Bishop in conversation with Dieter Schwarz in Dieter Schwarz and Alfred Pacquement, James Bishop Paintings and Works on Paper, exh. cat., Dusseldorf, Richter Verlag, 1993, p. 35. Published in concert with the exhibition that appeared at Kunstmuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland [Sept. 15–Nov. 21, 1993], Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris [Jan. 18–Mar. 13, 1994], and Westfalisches Landesmuseum, Munster [June 5–July24, 1994].
3 Ibid., p. 37.
4 Poirier and Nicol, pp. 134-35.
5 Schwarz, p. 35.
6 Ibid., p. 33.