PRINT May 1988

James Bishop: Remembering How to See

IN RECENT SEASONS, JAMES BISHOP has painted on smallish pieces of paper, usually eight inches by ten, though he sometimes works on a sheet eight inches square. Never does the image look squared away: faint blues and luminous grays arrange themselves to suggest architectural ascension, a structured upwardness. Pencil lines reinforce these suggestions with stepped and peaked forms—terse hieroglyphs for house or tower. This vertical tendency (for it refuses to become a definite policy) is new in Bishop’s art. From the late ’60s to the early ’80s he built nearly all his images from the halves and quarters of square surfaces. The symmetry tempts one to call him a Minimalist, but the label doesn’t stick. Minimalists sublimate evidence of process, converting it to data; though elusive and sometimes fading to invisibility, the traces of Bishop’s hand preserve their charge of personal meaning. A few years ago, he said he thinks of himself as “an Abstract Expressionist of the quieter branch.” Bishop makes his paintings by putting down a pool of thinned-out oil paint on a surface, then manipulating it in different ways, including tilting the canvas or paper this way and that. Sometimes in the past he would use this technique to fill the two upper quadrants of a canvas with a simple grid of crisscross bars, as in a pair of windows. This is an astonishing feat, and Bishop has never been much interested in talking about it. His paintings never attract attention to the way they were made. Effacing itself, his virtuosity is not so much seen in his art as felt there, like the quality of refinement one feels in certain cities.

Born in Missouri, Bishop has lived in France for most of his life as a painter, first in Paris, now in a small town about an hour from there. He has an expatriate but not a specifically Francophile sensibility. His painterly refinement is not that of an American enchanted by Paris. He has said that, as a student, the painter he admired most was Robert Motherwell—a votary of the School of Paris if ever there was one; later, he got interested in Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. But the architecture of his imagery belongs neither to Paris nor to New York (though he maintains a studio in Manhattan, and occasionally works there). Bishop has a thoroughly personal notion of urbanity. His art implies a fictive metropolis, of a sophistication to which actual cities can only aspire. Another way to put the point: Bishop has concerned himself less with the several audiences available to him than with the audience he would like to have. He wants to find the perfect viewer, or to paint the painting that will persuade such a viewer to come into existence.

The extremism of this wish gives Bishop a resemblance to the hero of Emile Zola’s novel The Masterpiece (1886), a painter driven to suicide by his despairing struggle to paint the perfect picture. A composite of Cézanne and Manet, the fictional Claude Lantier sought the formal novelty that would “shatter the Louvre” and open art to “Modern life in all its aspects.” By characterizing Lantier as self-destructive, Zola conveyed a sense that modernity imposes impossible demands on those who embrace it: to try to make history is to make a sacrificial offering of one’s ambition and finally oneself. This image of the self-immolating artist-hero is convincing only to those who believe in the possibility of progress toward esthetic perfection. So far as I know, Manet never claimed such a belief. In this decade, skepticism about esthetic advancement is so energetic that it feels new; we may forget that despite his innovations Manet displayed no signs of caring about painting’s march to the future. So it is questionable for Zola to have modeled his perfectionist hero even in part on Manet—questionable but not entirely wrong, for it appears to me that Manet did seek perfection in the same way that Bishop does, not in the future but in the present.

There is flattery in the idea that the best art is progressive: if Manet or Cézanne directed their paintings at the future, then we who live in that future are its best judges. The idea of progress gives us possession of the past—and of the future, too, for we have a proprietary interest in it. But we cannot own time, and the illusion that we do distracts us from the present that strong paintings address. Of course Manet’s present is lost to us, along with the viewers who were his contemporaries. We can only imagine how he engaged it by setting his art in a continuum of other lost presents, revisionary moments when Whistler, then Cézanne, then the Cubists and others tried to give an immediacy of their own to Manet’s thesis (never stated, persistently practiced) that iconography only comes alive when a viewer must grapple for its meaning amid ambiguities of line and tone. The path that runs from Cubism toward Jim Bishop might pass through Mondrian and the nonobjective tradition; through Abstract Expressionism, especially its black and white phases; through early, monochrome works by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns; through Cy Twombly’s later subtleties, which turn line into tone; and onward to the present engaged by painters who are often called Minimalists but, like Bishop, belong to “the quiet wing of Abstract Expressionism”—Brice Marden and David Novros, for example.

Robert Ryman belongs here too, though he long ago reduced line and tone to white, and the whiteness of his paintings sometimes gives them the quality of objects closed in on themselves, marvelously visible but not solicitous of the viewer. Similarly, Johns’ gray paintings almost repel engagement, as if their density had reversed their magnetism. At the other extreme, Mondrian surrounded his art with pronouncements that encourage us to look away from particular paintings to a general style and to the perfected future that style implies. Newman and others also issued progressive utopian statements about tomorrows today long gone—exhortations that sometimes distract us from the experience, now, of trying to grasp the present those painters faced, then. To give in to such distractions is understandable and, in a way, commendable: surely we want to remain alive to utopia’s appeal. Yet we also want to stay alert to the dangers of utopian promises, of which the promise that progressive art will produce measurable improvement in the world is perhaps one of the more innocuous. Utopian esthetics can loft us into a transcendental realm of political correctness, leaving us morally certain about the effects artworks ought to have. The interest in “objecthood” of the late ’50s and ’60s reacted against such utopian metaphors, but provided its own kind of certainty—certainty about the physical traits that works of art should possess. Certainty in any guise is seductive, but it is also misleading, for knowledge must always be partial. And it takes us far from an artwork’s meanings, which are suspended in the ambiguities of the present moment when we confront the work. It is from the experience of such meanings that we make our civilization, so it sooner or later feels unsatisfactory to leave the art of Mondrian or Newman adrift in the heaven of transcendentalizing politics. Likewise, we want the art of the object-makers among Manet’s heirs to have a place in the history of culture, not merely in the inventory of Modern things. Bishop makes it as clear as any painter does that Modern painting has its meaning in a search not for objecthood or transcendence, but for the perfect viewer.

His paintings encourage the eye to remember how it learned to see depth in flat surfaces, volumes in those depths, and light moving over those volumes. But such memories are lost, like memories of learning to speak. One might recall the early acquisition of this or that word, but not the experience of coming to know that words have meanings. Similarly, one can never think or feel one’s way back to the time when pictures began to make sense in the way they do in Western culture. Bishop’s perfect viewer would have that sort of memory. Often, both artists and viewers are driven to art by a present whose imperatives are so powerful that they block all others: disconnected from the past, we obey the demands of the instant. The perfect viewer solicited by Bishop’s paintings would ignore those demands. A viewer like that would devise the present by arriving in it consciously, deliberately, from an understood past, for that is how Bishop’s paintings arrive in their present. He makes images from painterly hints of what it is for his paint to learn, so to speak, to be an image. There is a critical tradition that understands such hints as self-referential, painting about painting, but they are not; they are a demand for reciprocity—perfect reciprocity from the perfect viewer. True, as Bishop’s painterly reflections on image-forming form themselves into a painterly image, they risk enclosure in their own history. But his best works break out of solipsism with an invitation not simply to see, to let phenomena register, but to bring to bear the history of one’s figuring out how to see. Bishop’s art encourages us to illuminate it with the knowledge of all that has happened to make depicted space and volume intelligible. No matter how well schooled in art history, our memory supplies us only with bits of that knowledge, so we let what we know of the public history of the medium serve as an allegory of our private and long-lost history of seeing. By elaborating that allegory, the viewer comes as close as he or she can to an impersonation of Bishop’s perfect viewer. Or Marden’s. Or Manet’s.

Bishop’s painting recalls 19th-century mastery of tone. To the extent that we can intuit it in the work, that mastery itself evokes the Renaissance, for it was then that Western culture began to arrange light and dark to make the kinds of pictures that we have learned to see as models of the intelligible. Renaissance pictures enforced their spatial arrangements with systems of linear perspective that still exercise authority over our seeing. In the Baroque, painters eluded that authority by ordering space with plays of light and dark, as if a reliance on tonal shifts could liberate the individual’s experience from the institutionalized machinery of perspective. In a way, they were successful; still, a Baroque picture set free by its tonal subtlety only counts as free because it implies the rigid Renaissance perspectives that were invented to impose order on the play of tone. The Rococo of the elder Tiepolo’s ink-wash drawings vaporizes the Baroque, tilting chiaroscuro—light-dark—in the direction of light-light. Yet the implication of Renaissance order persists even in his dazzling, sometimes almost unseeable grays.

Bishop’s perfect viewer would know the history of that persistence, of the resilience displayed by the institutional authority vested in linear perspective. His hoped-for viewer would see what Bishop has learned from Tiepolo about outwitting that authority. Bishop’s tonalities make space seem textural, not dimensional—a deep texture generated by the eye’s sweep and probe, and too delicate to permit standard measures of pictorial scale. Yet when I take a second or a fifth or a tenth look at one of the small gray paintings Bishop showed last year in New York, it occurs to me that a certain harshness in the delicacy of its modulations may comment on the quick jumps in Manet’s tone that Manet himself called “brutal.” Of course Bishop is not brutally aggressive—rather, he is brutally evasive. With minute feathering at the edges of his forms, with currents of tonal pressure that run across surfaces without changing their hues, with blottings that disappear into the weave of the paper before evoking anything in particular or even before letting themselves be seen, Bishop invites us to grasp the elusiveness of sheer fact. His evasions are inescapable, for they are right there, literally on the surface, so clearly and even demonstratively evident that they achieve something like literalism.

Bishop has painted three versions of a hazy field containing a two-celled form. The three paintings remind me vaguely of the pictures of the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa that the Scots architect Robert Adam made on his trip to Tivoli in 1756. More powerfully, they remind me of Adam’s, of the 18th century’s, of all of modernity’s fascination with ruin, which is a self-fascination, for modernity progresses in part by finding uses for fragments of the traditional cultures it destroys by coming into being. Bishop’s three “Adamite” paintings are doubly, triply allusive because their multiplication is so problematic. They might be successive performances of the same visual “score.” Or are they the product of self-induced déjà vu? Two of the three paintings differentiate themselves so subtly that casual looking could take them as exact replicas of each other. To look at one is to obliterate much that makes the other distinctive, unless the viewer has memorized both. Until that task of memorization has been carried out, comparisons between the paintings are impossible. With comparison blocked, the eye is confined to the disconnected present of immediate perception and its shallow associations. Meaning withers until one reconnects this painting’s present to another present. Bishop requires the eye to become a historian of his work. Having done that, the eye opens itself to the flood of the larger history in which swim Tiepolo and Manet and Giorgio Morandi and what else not?

The more closely one looks, the more one sees drifting into Bishop’s paintings. Then one sees it all disappear, or much of it, into a luminosity that refuses to read as light. Bishop illuminates nothing. Absorbing light from the room, his colors insist that they are pigments—facts of a certain kind. His insistence on fact produces a superbly difficult climate for his unverifiable allusions, which arrive in his art nonstop and linger hardly at all, generating in the process an almost invisible flicker of significance. The only stability here is in pictorial fossils of a more or less geometric kind—hints of architecture, which suggest Bishop is more interested in the urban than in the heaven of Newman’s or Rothko’s sublime.

By enlarging the field, Newman and Rothko purified it, or it might be better to say that they deployed a rhetoric of purification whose leading tropes were meiosis and hyperbole, under- and overstatement, the one played off against the other until the image sailed into a state of all-encompassing emptiness. Bishop has taken the opposite direction—from large to small, from emblems of unbounded heaven to those of the walled-in city. By shrinking his biggish canvases of the ’60s and ’70s—typically they are six feet square—to this decade’s paintings on small sheets of paper, he has condensed rather than purified his images. As the texture of allusion has thickened, each suggestion of stone or dust or melancholy light has become more tenuous. Bishop claims the present as the prize for leaving out the history of his, and his medium’s, arrival at the moment of beginning painting. The chief trope of his rhetoric is ellipsis, which ensures that his art is both vacant and heavily laden.

An elliptical image is a ruined image, a collection of fragments, a heap or scattering of signs of an artist’s disinclination to cultivate a unifying faith in an absolute wholeness. Newman said, “The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete”; seeking what is real and concrete, Newman’s viewer is to look at art “without the nostalgic glasses of history.” Bishop’s viewer rummages around in history trying to find the spectacles of doubt, the ones that throw the self-evident into a questioning light. Each of Bishop’s paintings recommends that one wonder if revelation can ever be more than a rhetoric of revelation. In explaining to interviewers why he named a 1963 painting Diary, Bishop pointed to an area of green. Noting that the green holds fast to one side of the canvas and on the other seems to have been torn loose, he said, “I think that’s what I’d do if I ever kept a diary. I’d just gradually tear all the pages out.”1 Tearing out pages, wearing them thin, vaporizing the certainties that separate his angular figures from their squarish grounds, Bishop carries on a demolition whose chief residue is the subtlety that empties his art, opening it to the questions memory supplies from its store of restless and sometimes desperate urbanity. If we are skeptical enough not to be satisfied with the truths and absolutes that take us out of time, Bishop’s art will usher us into the present. In some ways, the present in his fictive metropolis is bleak. The moment they are built, the forms of his city dismantle themselves, leaving meaning homeless. But Bishop’s art is a zone of pleasure too, where doubt is justified not only by reason but by the exquisite intensity it gives to vision.

Carter Ratcliff is a writer who lives in New York. He is working on a book on Komar and Melamid.



1. Bishop, interviewed by Maurice Poirier and Jane Necol, in “The ’60s in Abstract: 13 Statements and an Essay,” Art in America 71 no. 9, October 1983, p. 135.