New York

Isabel Bishop

Midtown-Payson Galleries

While by no means a retrospective, this show of selections from Isabel Bishop’s “The Walking Pictures” (a series of paintings ranging from the ’60s to the ’80s) and of drawings and prints, offered a revealing look at Bishop’s vision of 20th-century New York life. Like her fellow student Reginald Marsh at the Art Students’ League, Bishop was determined to use everyday subjects. And like him, she was also attracted to the bustling street scenes of New York. For her focus she chose Union Square which by the late ’20s, with the construction of the subway, had become not only a main transportation hub but an important commercial shopping district.

A keen observer of appearance and behavior, she nevertheless forged a style that would allow her, as Bishop once put it, “to say something for [herself].” The uniqueness of Bishop’s vision is evident in her portrayals of working women such as Spectators, 1933; Laughing Girl, 1934; and Two Girls Outdoors, 1953. The sense of being at once a part of and apart from the crowded streets and subways provided one of the fundamental themes of “The Walking Pictures,” in which walking becomes a metaphor for the directed energy which, for Bishop, was a critical component of the American character. Concentrating on the younger generation, she captured the prevailing fashions and also postures of the era. But what serves to remove these compositions from the category of mere anecdote is the boldly abstracted context in which the figures are situated, as in Youths #3, 1980, in which the figures move against a collage of light planes.

In the end, it is Bishop’s method of painting in a combination of oil and tempera on gesso panel that gives her compositions, for all their apparent dissolution of form, their symbolic weight. The degree to which the painted surfaces themselves reflect light lends the figures the monumentality of those in a Piero Della Francesca fresco. An artist who was held in great esteem by her contemporaries, Bishop, as this show so strikingly demonstrated, merits equal attention today.

Ronny Cohen