New York

Bill Jensen

Washburn Gallery

Bill Jensen is one of the most significant painters of his generation, and his work—particularly during the late ’70s—exerted a profound influence on younger artists. Whereas the then-fashionable neo-Expressionists combined images pastiched from eclectic cultural sources with a loose painterly style, Jensen renewed the symbolist impulse that fueled the work of late American Romantics and early American Modernists such as Albert Pinkham Ryder and Marsden Hartley without resorting to parody or kitsch. He gambled that his painting would be able to absorb, transform, and revitalize what many had considered a moribund tradition.

For the first half of the ’80s, Jensen’s paintings were seldom more than two feet square, and the painterly effects ranged from thick, blunt strokes to scraped-away areas and thin washes of paint. Typically, compositions were worked on over a period of years, and their facture registers their gradual evolution as paintings. The motifs were derived from natural forms, with the ellipse and teardrop appearing most frequently. From the mid ’70s to the mid ’80s, the artist continually reinvigorated these forms but never repeated himself; indeed, his work conveyed a sense of inventiveness and discovery throughout this period.

During the mid ’80s, Jensen began consciously expanding his focus, moving from close-up, abstract views of natural forms to more distant views that evoked the landscape and sky. This expansion can be seen as part of a process of reevaluation that Jensen seems to have completed with this recent exhibition of paintings; several of these works were actually started in the mid ’80s. Among the evident differences between the recent paintings and the ones for which Jensen is best known is an increased scale and breadth of view, as well as an expanded range of painterly effects.

By stepping back from his close-up views, Jensen has moved from images dominated by a single motif to compositions that distinguish foreground, middle ground, and background; as with his earlier work, he has reevaluated Modernist spatial conventions. In Sea of Green, 1989–90, for example, a work in which a thick sculptural area of paint is juxtaposed with a carefully scraped-away section, each passage of paint and color becomes a thing unto itself. In Sea of Green, some shapes interlock, and others bump up against each other. Paint, in Jensen’s work, seems to struggle to become something more than viscous matter, to register more than chaos and incoherence. At the same time, I have the feeling that Jensen willfully undermines his own ability because he knows that it cannot save him from his own mortality and dissolution.

In Babar, 1988, Jensen’s awareness of the inevitability of incoherence is offset by a sense of yearning. The painting’s title suggests the well-known children’s books, and its trunklike form evokes something reaching up beyond the painting’s edges. In Lie-Light, 1989–90, and Ochre Sound for Ronnie, 1988–89, Jensen floats a wide range of abstract shapes and rendered forms against a tonally monochromatic, abstract ground. As in Sea of Green, each form is defined by both its specific color and the way the paint has been handled. Within Jensen’s work, image, process, and materiality function as a unity.

Jensen has exceeded his own mastery, and, while some might see the paintings that have resulted as deliberate failures, their incoherence is evocative, ultimately proposing a kind of eloquence we may never have seen before.

John Yau