New York

James Bishop, Avant le jour (Before the Day), 1986, oil on canvas, 66 1/2 × 67 3/4".

James Bishop, Avant le jour (Before the Day), 1986, oil on canvas, 66 1/2 × 67 3/4".

James Bishop

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

James Bishop, Avant le jour (Before the Day), 1986, oil on canvas, 66 1/2 × 67 3/4".

This thoughtfully selected, beautifully installed show of James Bishop’s work—his first solo exhibition in New York since 1987—opened with four small paintings, all from 2012, of the sort to which the eighty-seven-year-old artist has devoted himself exclusively since 1986: compositions in oil and crayon on modest paper supports, in this case, surfaces in the vicinity of five by four and a half inches. Three rework the same basic form, a post-and-lintel structure reduced to pale, gleaming lines within a deep-blue field. As is true within many of the bodies of work produced by the artist, variation among individual paintings is subtle, encouraging close and comparative looking: Here the scaffolding is taller and narrower, there shorter and wider; here the horizontal bar overlaps the vertical supports, there the opposite is true. Each rearrangement of these few constituent elements alters the scale and luminosity of the whole. As the beholder notices that the fourth painting embeds roughly the same armature—now with darker lines—within a warm, gray ground and balances it atop a horizontal band of wiped-away paint, the shift in register is total. Bishop’s painting, these works suggest, is a continually improvised art of calibration and attunement, in which the slightest displacements appear surprisingly consequent.

The preponderance of the show, which comprised eleven large paintings on canvas, testified both to the consistency of Bishop’s concerns over time and to a no less marked desire to keep matters open. In the main gallery were five works made between 1967 and 1986, a period of sustained achievement instigated in part by the painter’s first trip back to New York after nearly a decade in France. Aside from the slightly smaller Avant le jour (Before the Day), 1986,Bishop’s final work on canvas, all are of his standard, roughly seventy-seven-inch square format, and all evince his autograph process of tilting and rocking a stretched and primed support to distribute very liquid oil paint within areas of lightly sketched geometric scaffolding. The multilayered, never-quite-monochromatic fields appear poised on the threshold between calculation and noncontrol, each a particular negotiation of that limit; meanwhile, the nonchronological installation effectively underscored the nonlinear and not obviously developmental nature of Bishop’s practice.

Two other rooms were more tightly focused. In the south gallery were two canvases from the early ’60s: the smaller and horizontal Untitled, 1962–63, which reveals twinned, roughly centered rectangles partially offset by a gently sloping band; and the transitional Other Colors, 1965, in which a painted internal frame and two low-slung rectangles vie for attention with a large white area. Their striking, if somewhat muddied, complementary contrasts—red and olive green in the former, blue and ocher in the latter—throw into relief the extraordinarily restrained and even more determinedly impure tones of the work made after 1966, just as their increasingly deductive bent allows the effect of color to come more decisively to the fore. Meanwhile, four paintings in the north gallery represented a larger midcareer subset that turns entirely upon various browns. Two allover canvases appear as antipodes: the washy, copper-toned State, 1972, with its irresistible likeness to a solarized photograph; and the obdurate Closed, 1974, with its barely distinguishable chestnut gradations. Two other paintings, both from 1974, set painted rectangles—horizontal in one case, vertical in the other—against equal or slightly larger expanses of white. As is the case with the opening works on paper, one had the sense of standing in the artist’s laboratory, discovering with him just how much depends on a bit of red, on a particular undercoat of yellow.

Bishop’s paintings beg for and reward viewing in diffuse natural light. For all their seeming simplicity, they refuse to settle: Their infinitely protracted drama is that of the continued appearance and fading of barely perceptible aspects and inflections that ceaselessly rearticulate the whole. Looking becomes an exercise in uncertainty: Does the upper-right square in Closed really have a darker, somewhat teal-ish hue relative to its immediately adjacent partner? Is there truly a vertical, slightly paler bar bisecting the house-like form in Avant le jour? Why does a similar structure in the suggestively titled Maintenant (Now), 1981, appear yet again as if coming to a point, when one has just verified this is not the case? These are works to come back to again and again—and are never the same paintings twice.

Molly Warnock