PRINT January 2014


James Bishop, Other Colors, 1964, oil on canvas, 59 x 59".

BY HIS OWN ESTIMATION, the American painter James Bishop never could do a “sixties painting in the Greenbergian sense.”1 Yet in the late 1960s and ’70s, when Bishop was living in France at midcareer, his work offered a central reference for the reception of Clement Greenberg’s writings in that country. It is surprising that Bishop’s work should assume this role, not only because of his professed inability to hew to a Greenbergian line but also because of the apparent unlikeliness of a resurgence of Greenberg’s ideas at that moment. The years following the 1960 publication of his now-canonical essay “Modernist Painting” saw the critic at the height of his power, but by the end of the decade a broad range of new practices (Minimalism, Pop, and performance art among them) had famously abandoned Greenberg’s strict modernist ideology and his emphasis on painting itself. In France, however, where postwar criticism had been dominated by the mystifying mysticisms of critics such as Michel Tapié and Pierre Restany—and where postwar American painting had been received slowly and haltingly, primarily through the lens of Harold Rosenberg’s 1952 essay “The American Action Painters”—Greenberg’s attentiveness to the literal properties of painting still offered indices for an alternative understanding of the medium, one seemingly embodied in Bishop’s subtle, idiosyncratic abstractions.

Centered around the journal Tel Quel and its eventual satellite, Peinture, cahiers théoriques, a host of writers and painters associated with the artists’ group Supports/Surfaces—Marcelin Pleynet, Philippe Sollers, Marc Devade, Louis Cane, and Daniel Dezeuze, among others—eagerly explored the latent possibilities in Greenberg’s criticism. It is easy to dismiss the more extreme moments in this theorizing, where Greenberg routinely meets Lacan, Althusser, and Chairman Mao. (As Yve-Alain Bois remarked in this magazine in 1998, some of these texts are better left “in abeyance” for now.2) But at its best, this work thoughtfully addressed one of the fundamental limitations of Greenberg’s writings: his seeming effacement of the painter behind the increasingly refined agency of painting itself. Against the critic’s emphasis on painting about painting (understood as an autonomous medium), the circle around Tel Quel sought to reopen the question of “the subject,” a problem rooted in a broader, contested reception and transformation of Hegelian philosophy, and one that they believed had been repressed in the American context of Greenbergian positivism and its Minimalist aftermath.3 In Bishop’s work, this group found a powerful counter-model of subjectivity as embodied and expressive but also—crucially—constrained and conditioned by process and materiality.

Bishop has never been given to theoretical writing and is notably reticent about his own painting in particular. Nonetheless, his work reveals a searching investigation of the relative—and, at times, seemingly opposed—claims of painting and the self, and of the possibilities and impossibilities of their mutual articulation. In other words, Bishop’s self-professed shortcoming—his “failure” to make Greenbergian painting—appears an achievement of another sort.

BORN IN NEOSHO, MISSOURI, in 1927, Bishop studied painting at Washington University and Black Mountain College (under Esteban Vicente) and art history at Columbia (under Rudolf Wittkower and Meyer Schapiro) before traveling to Europe in 1957 and then settling in France the following year. At the time, he has written, he “still had something of the ‘true believer’ feeling” with respect to Abstract Expressionism, with a particularly strong affinity for the work of Robert Motherwell and, later, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt.4 Although Bishop has never renounced this identification, he soon rethought it substantially, both through engaging art history (he has studied Italian painting in particular, professing “the light and color-Piero-Bellini-16th century Venice-story” his “favorite episode” in art history5) and by closely following subsequent developments in the work of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella, all of whom showed in Paris in the early ’60s.

In a rare written statement from 1983, Bishop offers a remarkably concise description of his work’s transformation during his crucial first decade in Europe:

In the ’60s, I wanted a fairly simple image with some interest or oddness in itself but which, above all, could be a vehicle for dealing with some problem or some aspect of painting. By the end of the decade the images had become repeated and repetitious, simpler as their relationships became more complex, image and “problem” subordinated to a certain expressiveness.6

James Bishop, Water, 1961, oil on canvas, 59 7/8 x 53 7/8".

The barely masked tension here between the image “with some interest or oddness in itself” and the emphasis on a broader “problem . . . of painting” goes to the heart of his early work. Take, for example, Bishop’s early negotiations with the trope of “deductive structure,” an increasingly established response to what was then seen as one of the most fundamental challenges of abstract painting: that of relating a picture’s composition to the shape of its physical support. Internal frames recur throughout his paintings of the early ’60s, as do repeating rectangles, ladder forms, and right angles. All these devices work to establish some relation to the literal shape of the stretched canvas—which, from an early moment, is often square (approximately fifty by fifty and sixty by sixty inches are frequent dimensions). Yet time and again, Bishop’s structures also reveal slight but critical departures from the givens of the format: They could be more accurately described as just-off-deductive. Forms almost redouble across a central, horizontal, or vertical axis; alternately, the axis itself is displaced slightly, at times almost imperceptibly, left or right, up or down. It is through such displacements that the distinctive expressiveness of Bishop’s paintings emerges.

These changes read as keyed to the actual human form, eroding strict bilateral symmetry in favor of a subtle differentiation between left and right, or what might be called handedness, and inscribing an implied hierarchy of top and bottom, or headedness. (The latter analogy is all but forced by the 1964 painting The Story of His Head, in which a blue tab in the upper middle is marked with noticeably greater emphasis than is a rhyming form symmetrically positioned below it.) Put another way, Bishop’s structural choices are almost always conditioned, but clearly not determined, by the literal properties of the support: They insist equally on the agency and the frame of an embodied maker.

Bishop’s color functions in a similarly double sense. It serves as a pictorial system that produces a just-off-flat Greenbergian field, but it also burrows through that field to conjure an unexpected depth. His earliest paintings in France had been gestural affairs, built up of multiple, thinly applied paint layers in impure earth tones: ocher, sienna, burnt umber, dark olive, rose. In those works, white canvas was either absent or played a relatively minor role, while the pigmented areas and their mutual relations unfolded slowly—as if the picture, eschewing the instantaneous impact of “good” Greenbergian modernism, were welling up from below or within. After 1963, however—and probably owing to the painter’s 1961 encounter with Matisse’s paper cutouts at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, as well as from his increased familiarity with the work of Louis and Noland—white space surfaces in force. As if in response, Bishop begins to incorporate stronger, more striking hues: bold cadmium red, a notably Matissean azure. These colors hold up more effectively than Bishop’s previous palette to the optically dazzling effects of exposed canvas, but they also lend themselves to an overall impression of comparative flatness.

Bishop, tellingly, mitigates that effect—both by continuing to use oil paints, which he prizes for a richness of effect unmatched by the acrylics increasingly used by his peers in American Color Field painting (and, later, by his admirers in Supports/Surfaces), and by layering those paints over undercoats, in a continuation of his earlier technique. Bishop also combines these higher-keyed hues with denser and comparatively recessive—or “impossible,” as he calls them—colors from his earlier work, as in the 1963 canvas Diary: “The green of Diary is like a dark green hole, but flat and held down at the right by rectilinear luminous red bands and white canvas bands and torn loose from the white canvas at the left.”7 Here, color asserts a paradoxical depth that does not simply deny the primed, unpainted canvas, but is held in maximum tension with it. And so it maintains a narrow but significant space—not for the beholder to occupy imaginatively, exactly, but for the picture to differ from itself. Read against the confessional associations of its title, Diary figures subjectivity as always, to some extent, structured by reserve; as mutable and aspectual as opposed to transparently present.

Bishop’s negotiations with structure and color converge all the more strikingly in Other Colors, 1964. In a 1993 interview, the painter notes that the title “always meant ‘other colors than white,’ trying to compete with the blinding white.”8 As in other works from this moment, the painted structure has deductive roots: An asymmetrical blue skeleton both limns the framing square of the canvas and vertically bisects its top half (or what is, characteristically, just less than its top half). To the left, one bar spans the picture obliquely, connecting with the framing armature a little less than one-third of the way down the vertical edge; to the right, another bar descends at a steeper angle. Within this blue structure, areas of warm chestnut brown have an intensely bodily charge, which gives way abruptly where the configuration as a whole is truncated by a tear-like boundary. Throughout, one is acutely conscious of decisions taken and adjustments made. The sharper descent of the blue bar, for example, effectively counteracts the upward thrust of the irregular incline, such that neither feels strictly aleatory or nakedly impulsive. Rather, the results exemplify Bishop’s peculiar combination of the nonmechanical and the deeply deliberate: his desire to at once acknowledge the givens of the support—its whiteness, flatness, and squareness—and to assert something like his autonomy in the face of them.

James Bishop, The Story of His Head, 1964, oil on canvas, 59 x 59".

A FUNDAMENTAL SHIFT OCCURS in 1966: Bishop more fully appropriates a particular way of working, testing even more pointedly the tensions between the physical facts and processes of painting and his intentions as painter. Placing a stretched canvas flat on his studio floor, he deposits brushfuls of very liquid oil paint onto areas of the surface that he has already lightly delimited in pencil, tilting the canvas so as to cause the liquid pigment to spread within that perimeter, and damming or blotting the paint as necessary to prevent it from spreading too far beyond these boundaries. He had used the technique in a limited way from the summer of 1963,9 but in the earlier paintings, it appears subordinate to the desire for an image with “some interest or oddness in itself”: a total configuration at once steeped in the self-reflexive strategies of modernist painting and subtly bent to the seemingly opposed force of the painter’s will. This is no longer the case in the work after 1966, where pouring becomes the primary vehicle of Bishop’s “expressiveness.” At stake here is a fundamental recognition about the nature of the latter: a matter of coming to articulation through, as opposed to simply in the face of, otherness. Rather than strictly averring his agency against the physical constraints of his medium, Bishop embraces painting’s indomitable materiality—its very alterity—as an enabling element, conditioning his activity from the first.

Bishop has emphasized repeatedly the unpredictable and dialogic nature of the pouring process. Here is the painter in 1983: “I like the painting’s participation, and I like the artist’s participation, and I like the artist’s hand being there and not there.”10 Or again, ten years later, in 1993:

I never knew exactly how a painting would look finished, if it would work or not. Sometimes what happened was more interesting than what I thought I was trying to do. I liked the combination of my doing it and it doing itself. I was never totally in control.11

As these lines suggest, Bishop’s action of pouring and tilting the canvas turns on a kind of passivity—a waiting-to-see or letting-happen—that moves definitively away from the mystical rhetoric surrounding earlier painterly flirtations with uncontrolled or noncompositional techniques, a mythic suppression of the self exemplified in Tapié’s exhortations to painters to follow the advice of Saint John of the Cross and “take an unfamiliar route.” Against art informel’s dark night of the soul, Bishop insists on the opacity of matter and the contingencies of making—a turn that presumably underscored the relationship between his work and Greenberg’s criticism in the eyes of Bishop’s contemporaries. Simon Hantaï’s pliage, or folding, practice, inaugurated in 1960 and appropriated definitively as a “method” (in the painter’s celebrated formula) in 1967, offers a closely related and roughly contemporaneous point of comparison, and one whose long genesis Bishop had observed firsthand at Galerie Kléber and, later, at Galerie Jean Fournier, where both artists had landmark solo exhibitions in the later ’60s and ’70s. The techniques developed by both were, in turn, deeply influential for the Supports/Surface group, where such tactile manipulations of painting were pushed even further, for example in Cane’s total abandonment of the wooden stretcher frame or Dezeuze’s experiments with plastic sheeting.

What frees Bishop to the new approach is, it seems, a substantial shift in dimensions. As early as 1965, the painter had begun working with a larger format: the roughly six-and-a-half-foot square canvas that, used in conjunction with a slightly smaller stretcher, would remain his standard for the next twenty years. Bishop’s account of this shift is characteristically pragmatic—it was, he has said, the first time he could afford to buy canvas of this width—but he has also stressed the transformative nature of the ensuing recognition: “As soon as the canvas was stretched, I realized it was the human scale—slightly taller than I am and slightly wider than my arms outstretched, and I think the divisions of the canvas come from that. . . . The sense of one’s own scale and space was essential and so I think the paintings should be looked at from fairly near.”12 The larger format, in other words, was a means not of imposing a more striking “image,” but of introducing yet another subjective dimension to the work by asserting the canvas as a quasi-bodily presence in its own right. It is significant that while many of his peers explored ever-larger formats—Hantaï’s later pliage paintings frequently assume architectural dimensions, while Louis developed his own pouring technique specifically to create very large paintings within a small workspace—Bishop has continued to work at this particular, eminently human, scale in all his work on canvas. (Since 1986, the artist has focused exclusively on paintings on paper.) If Greenberg famously championed Louis’s large-format works, idealizing painting’s optical effects as boundless and anonymous, Bishop’s understanding of visual experience, by contrast, has remained grounded in an embodied viewpoint.

James Bishop, Diary, 1963, oil on canvas, 52 x 59".

Bishop then finds that his earlier, more quixotic, off-deductive style no longer “works” at these increased dimensions. So the painter shifts instead to regular configurations of repeating and abutting bars and squares valued precisely for their banality—their ability to map the space while also serving as a kind of scaffolding for the new fields of poured color he was developing at the time. Art historian Stephen Melville captures this simultaneous function in his description of the painter’s search for “the articulations that will permit [the painting] to stand without betraying its fundamental groundedness.”13 Where the earlier structures were more visibly attuned to the human body (as if asserting that body in the face of painting), these comparatively impersonal configurations suggest a relative detachment on Bishop’s part—recasting the earlier rivalry between painting and subject as one between a less corporeal geometry and a scale and experience that are fully embodied.

Within those fields, color itself undergoes important changes. The impure tones of earlier years return, while the fields as a whole tend toward the monochromatic—though the painter continues to favor a two-layered process, employing slightly different tones for under- and topcoat. In this way, emphasis now shifts from the visually striking juxtapositions of the earlier work to the at-times-infinitesimal gradations of saturation within the “same” color. (That the different color layers intermingle throughout the field without altogether losing their distinctness further underscores Bishop’s vision of encounter or, say, mutual exposure—each color inflecting the other all the way down.) These nuances do not read from a distance and so pull the beholder close: They reinforce the focus on bodily proximity that now emerges as one of the defining features of Bishop’s practice.

But proximity is not merger—a point amply dramatized by two other aspects of Bishop’s pouring process. There is, to begin with, Bishop’s facture. His canvas is primed, and as a result, his color does not soak into the canvas and cannot be understood as a kind of diaphanous, “disembodied” quality of the picture plane itself, as Greenberg famously claimed in relation to the work of Louis and Noland.14 Instead, it remains a discrete, covering skin. No less crucially, it maintains a connection to the artist’s hand: Brush bristles frequently appear, even where the work is devoid of visible strokes—vestiges of a prior moment of contact, preserved in paint. Never strictly optical, but never matièriste in any conventional sense, Bishop’s color appears as the epidermal interface between two bodies: the painting’s and the painter’s.

Something similar could be said of the seams that mark the junctures between adjacent paint areas and that emerge from the overlapping of paint across those boundaries. Again, the painter emphasizes the practical dimension of his approach: “It was a way of making a line without actually painting it in.”15 But here as elsewhere, the innovation corresponds to—one might even say it helps secure—a fundamental change in content. Bishop describes the evolution of his work as one of images becoming increasingly repetitious, “simpler as their relationships became more complex.” This development brings relationality as such—explored by so many artists of the era in terms of series or sets—to the fore. Yet Bishop’s repetition is less a matter of one thing after another than of one thing emerging where it touches another, and so already bound up with that other: It is more intimate than seriality. The seams are mutual overlays, fundamentally different in quality from the meeting of painted and nonpainted, with a marked tactile charge—a charge that would prove formative for the circle around Tel Quel. In a defining essay of 1971, Pleynet describes Bishop’s seams as “rides” (wrinkles).16

If there is one canvas that captures the complex relationships articulated in Bishop’s work, not only between painting and body but also between self and surrounding, it is Roman Painting IV, 1975. The work’s surface is cleaved horizontally between a white upper half and a brown lower register, while the latter is divided in turn into two main squares. It is one of a number of paintings Bishop produced in the early ’70s deploying various browns, a color he says interested him in part for its associative potential (with, among other things, “earth, blood, wine, shit etc.”17). Like other works within that group, it sets Bishop’s drawing—regular graphite traces limning the latticelike armatures of overlapping and adjoining vertical and horizontal bands, identical from one square to the other—in conversation with the seams formed by the pouring process through which he fills these squares with color.18 Bishop’s drawing at once bounds those squares and lends each unit a distinctly vertical, upright thrust: In a certain holdover of what I have called headedness, matching horizontal bars cross both squares where the painted field as a whole meets the white canvas, but no such bars traverse the bottom edge. Yet while each square appears as a “body” in its own right, the painted seam between the two squares paradoxically joins them at their very separation. And as in other poured paintings, that threshold is rendered luminous by the less saturated paint to either side: an irradiation effect, one might say, reminding us that each stands in the light of the other, not only in the openness and closedness of the unpainted canvas just above but that of the unpainted world all around.

Molly Warnock is an assistant professor in history of art at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

James Bishop, Early, 1967, oil on canvas, 76 3/8 x 76 3/8”.


1. “Artists Should Never Be Seen nor Heard: James Bishop in Conversation with Dieter Schwarz,” in James Bishop: Paintings and Works on Paper, ed. Dieter Schwarz and Alfred Pacquement (Winterthur, Switzerland: Kunstmuseum Winterthur; 1993–94), 33.

2. Yve-Alain Bois, “‘Les Années Supports/Surfaces,’” Artforum, December 1998, 120.

3. For an illuminating overview of this context, see Philip Armstrong, Laura Lisbon, and Stephen Melville, As Painting: Division and Displacement, exh. cat. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 73. I owe my first encounter with Bishop’s work to this groundbreaking exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, OH.

4. Schwarz and Pacquement, James Bishop, 121

5. Ibid., 33.

6. Ibid.

7. Schwarz and Pacquement, James Bishop, 121.

8. Ibid., 34.

9. Bishop cites Hours, 1963, as the first canvas painted partly in this way (Schwarz and Pacquement, James Bishop, 34). I have not seen this painting, which was one of fifteen paintings in oil on canvas and thirty-seven paintings in oil on paper by Bishop (as well as fifteen paintings by Simon Hantaï) purchased by New York dealer Paul Rodgers for Irish businessman Dermot Desmond under the heading of the Bluebird Collection. The subject of a lawsuit brought by Desmond against Rodgers, the collection appears to have been liquidated in 2002; the current location of all sixty-seven paintings remains unknown to the artists and their representatives. For more on the collection and the litigation, see Adrian Dannatt, “A Simple Plan,” Art & Auction, May 2003, 22–24.

10. Schwarz and Pacquement, James Bishop, 121.

11. Ibid., 35.

12. Ibid., 34.

13. Armstrong, Lisbon, and Melville, As Painting, 73.

14. As Greenberg writes: “The fabric, being soaked in paint rather than merely covered by it, becomes paint in itself, color in itself, like dyed cloth: the threadedness and wovenness are in the color. . . . The effect conveys a sense not only of color as somehow disembodied, and therefore more purely optical, but also of color as a thing that opens and expands the picture plane.” Greenberg, “Louis and Nolan” (1960), reprinted in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brian, vol. 4 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 97.

15. Schwarz and Pacquement, James Bishop, 34.

16. See in particular Marcelin Pleynet, “La couleur au carré, les rides, le dessein,” in Art et littérature (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, “Collection Tel Quel,” 1977), 324–46. An initial version of Pleynet’s text had appeared in the catalogue for Bishop’s 1971–72 exhibition at Galerie Jean Fournier. See James Bishop: Peintures 1967–1971, exh. cat. (Paris: Galerie Jean Fournier, 1971).

17. Schwarz and Pacquement, James Bishop, 35. One might compare Marcelin Pleynet’s psychoanalytically inflected reading of Bishop’s browns in “Pourquoi la peinture,” a new introduction that accompanied the reprinting of “La couleur au carré” in Peinture, cahiers théoriques, nos. 2–3 (1972): 53–56, and also in Art et Littérature, 324–28.

18. This interplay between graphite drawing and pouring points back to a related interchange between drawing and staining in the work of Helen Frankenthaler, an acknowledged precedent for Bishop’s painting process. This notably drops out of the further transformations of that technique by Louis and Noland.