PRINT February 1967

James Bishop

ONE WAY TO APPROACH James Bishop’s paintings, seen in New York this fall for the first time at the Fischbach Gallery, is to stress the advantages of their expatriate origin. Bishop has lived in Paris since 1957, returning to this country as a visitor only once, in 1966. His relation to the last decade of American painting, then, has been that of both an outsider and an insider. On the one hand, his art depended fully on the traditions of his native country; but on the other, he has been free from the yearly pressures of abrupt and modish changes exerted upon younger artists who wanted to survive in the New York scene. The results in Bishop’s works are clear. He was able to evolve from the 1950s to the 1960s with slow and measured steps that move in the over-all direction of recent American painting yet remain unfrenzied by the pulse of New York.

From his more meditative vantage-point in Paris, Bishop first assimilated quietly such major transatlantic stimuli as the heroic scale of Rothko, Still, and Newman and the light-dark heraldry of Kline and Motherwell, and then achieved a personal distillation that now belongs fully to the mid-1960s. Works of 1964 teeter on the brink of what could be learned from the secure triumphs of an earlier generation. The emblematic simplifications of these paintings offer a particularly Motherwellian duality between the predictability of pattern and the marks of impulse. Thus, the pure geometry of the square framing edge is mirrored first in the continuous white border, then cracked by the broken square fields of blue, and then further challenged by the internal canals of more fluid streams of color that seem to have erupted from the intense pressures of a predetermined design. These taut dialogues between the whole and the parts, between the dictates of reason and the rebellions of feeling, reach an even more razor-edged extreme in the newest works of 1965–66. Here, the pictorial architecture partakes more overtly of the 1960s preference for a lucid, systematic order, insisting characteristically on austere zones of absolute symmetry that echo the perfect square of the canvas’s shape. Generally, a rectangular area of white is set off against smaller rectangles of color in an evocation of those Quattrocento altarpieces with side panels or predellas that Bishop, during his frequent trips to Italy, had studied with the erudition of an art historian and the love of a connoisseur. Yet these stark geometric formats are dramatized by hairbreadth irregularities that refine and heighten the more apparent visual conflicts of the earlier work. Thus, at the points of juncture between the major zones of white and the minor zones of color, there are quivering pressures not only of vibrant, irregular edges in collision, but even of an occasional tiny splattering of paint. Moreover, these areas vie with each other for readings as foreground or background, as surfaces that are simultaneously being concealed or unveiled, as energies that are slowly expanding or contracting against the explicitly flat and static geometries of the pictorial architecture. The colors, too, bear out this interplay between the austere and the sensuous. Monochrome expanses of astringent ochres and olive greens, of chilly blues and somber brick reds betray an unexpected warmth and glow beneath such overtly puritanical hues and surfaces. And often, the ostensible regularity of the painting’s structure is subtly countered by an almost imperceptible variation in tonal value that adds still another pressure within the binding rigor of the dominant symmetries.

Like so many recent American paintings, whether by Stella or Noland, Bishop’s impose upon the traditions of Abstract Expressionism a new kind of discipline that is largely generated by the rectilinear ground plan established in the picture’s framing edge. Yet within the severe logic of this plotted territory, Bishop maintains a private passion and vibrancy that give his works their distinctive stamp. In the best sense, they are the paintings of an expatriate who has been able to choose, free from the exigencies of the New York art world, what is truly relevant to him. Not surprisingly then, they are pictures which, like the strong and weathered stones of the Renaissance architecture that so often inspired them, emanate a durability and resonance rare in American painting today.

Robert Rosenblum