Washington, DC

Bill Jensen

The Phillips Collection

This ambitious exhibition provided not only a partial retrospective of Bill Jensen’s work but also a chance to consider it in the context of related paintings from the Phillips Collection. These other works—abstractions based on organic forms or landscapes, by such pioneer American Modernists as Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Albert Pink-ham Ryder—were chosen specifically to complement Jensen’s show and were shown in two galleries adjacent to the exhibition.

Jensen himself has acknowledged the links between his paintings and those of the earlier artists—for example, in the title of a work from 1978–79, Ryder’s Eye. The similarities between the two groups of work can be striking. Jensen’s use of vertiginous space and simple, dramatic shapes, in such paintings as Joy, 1976, and Mussels, 1977–78, recalls O’Keeffe’s use of similar devices in her massive close-ups of flowers and bones; Jensen’s paintings share their oppressive, hieratic qualities as well. Some of his more recent paintings (including Legion, 1984–85, and Land’s End, 1981–82) , combine two distinct views, one spatial and the other flat, into one image, giving them a synoptic quality, as though we were seeing the same scene through two different frames of perception. In its combination of illusion and analysis these works recall the synthetic space of landscapes by Dove and Hartley, as well as of early Siennese painting.

While this exhibition underscored the connections between Jensen’s painting and that of the earlier artists, it also made clear how different the two groups of work are. Despite Jensen’s consistent use of such organic forms as spirals, cones, and ellipses, only in recent years, according to Eliza E. Rathbone’s catalogue essay for this show, has he begun to base work directly on the landscape. (It was disappointing that the most recent work included in the show was a single watercolor/gouache from 1986, Study of Deadhead.) With their heavily worked textures, scumbled colors, and melodramatic lighting effects, Jensen’s paintings refer to a wide range of sources besides nature, including Arabic decoration and science-fiction movies. Of course, it can be argued that these sources are themselves ultimately based on organic form.

What can be overlooked in placing too much emphasis on the connections between Jensen’s paintings and the landscape-derived work of these early Modernists is that organic abstraction is itself often based on geometric forms, but different ones from those found in what is usually considered geometric abstraction—ellipses, say, rather than squares. It was this sort of geometry that D’Arcy Thompson attempted to trace in his studies of form in nature. Jensen’s work suggests that the differences between the two strains of abstraction lie instead in their attitude toward figuration and their references to models in the world. Although by retaining such references, even in a reduced form, organic abstraction runs the risk of settling for decorative, anecdotal effects, it also keeps open the possible meanings that narrative can provide. Jensen’s dramatic paintings share the desire to achieve transcendence that underlies geometric abstraction, however much it may be framed in ironic detachment. But they look for the source of that transcendence in the flux of the physical world rather than in the severe certainties of ideal forms.

Charles Hagen