James Bishop, Untitled (Bank), 1974, oil on canvas, 76 3/4 × 76 3/4".

James Bishop, Untitled (Bank), 1974, oil on canvas, 76 3/4 × 76 3/4".

James Bishop

James Bishop, Untitled (Bank), 1974, oil on canvas, 76 3/4 × 76 3/4".

When John Ashbery died last year, the New York press reacted as if an epoch had come to a close. The poet is gone, but some witnesses of his generation are still with us. James Bishop is now ninety years old, and still working in the countryside outside Paris. Back in the 1960s, Ashbery succinctly nailed Bishop’s work when he described it as “Post-Painterly Quattrocentro”—“Quattrocentro” because of Bishop’s fierce loyalty to oil paint and to the paradoxical possibilities of the painting as window, and “Post-Painterly” because of his immediate struggle with the work of Robert Motherwell, Ellsworth Kelly, and Ad Reinhardt, painters who formed the backdrop of his maturation as an artist. Holland Cotter has called Bishop “best known for being underknown,” and despite Cotter’s admiration, as well as considered articles by Carter Ratcliff, Molly Warnock, and others, this remains true.

Why is James Bishop not more famous? Is it because he went to Paris when he should have stayed in New York? Or was avoiding fame an active choice, a matter of character? Certainly, he had the attention of critics. Even before Ashbery discovered him, Annette Michelson, using a period adjective, called Bishop one of the “most consequential” painters in Paris. Art criticism in the late 1950s and early ’60s was full of terms of approbation like consequential, serious, progressive. Bishop’s paintings at the time were undoubtedly consequential, serious, progressive, but he also refused to play the role assigned him, rejecting both the hubris of Abstract Expressionism and the politics of the Tel Quel movement. “Abstemious,” even “brutally evasive,” Ratcliff called him, and meant both descriptions as compliments.

The paintings—in this show, canvases from 1969 to 1978 and paintings on paper dated between 1956 and 2016—are magnificent. The large square canvases, some six feet across, are slightly taller than the artist himself. Luminous is a word that comes up often in descriptions both now and then. Bishop painted only in translucent oils, because he thought acrylics looked “dead.” In a handful of interviews given over his career, he has described his working process. His large-format paintings were usually composed flat on the floor, with warm earth tones—umber, sienna, ocher—diluted in lots of turpentine and spread onto the canvas in shallow pools, bound by hand-painted ridges of the same oils in a thicker, undiluted state. The resulting skeins of color do not so much reflect ambient light as accumulate it and let it trickle back. In some paintings, large divisions of primed canvas create white wastelands, horizons that pigments cannot cross. A disciplined ambiguity prevails: Color fields remain too diaphanous to become surfaces, but also refuse to suggest volumes. Ratcliff explained it as well as anyone when he wrote in Artforum in 1988 that “his paintings encourage the eye to remember how it learned to see depth in flat surfaces, volumes in those depths, and light moving over those volumes.” And this perhaps leads to another possible reason for the delayed reception of Bishop’s work: It’s that his paintings are absolutely unreproducible. The dignified earth pigments he uses are outside the gamut of RGB, the oils refuse to perform their translucence in CMYK, and radical changes in scale flummox reprinting in magazines or catalogues.

In the early 1980s, Bishop stopped painting large canvases and turned to preparing small pictures in crayon on card, “writing,” as he has said, “with the hand, rather than with the arm.” After all his other renunciations, it was as if he had renounced even the claims of the human scale. His small works could be misread as preparatory sketches for large abstract paintings, for they involve the same restrained language of color and structure, but they are not studies. Every year, Annemarie Verna Galerie shows four of these images at Art Basel. I asked how the four are selected—do they choose their favorites from innumerable variations? Or does the artist only release four, and archive a hundred others? No, the gallerist gently insisted, James Bishop only makes four. Each seemingly desultory image is a record of months of deliberation.

Adam Jasper