James Bishop, Early, 1967, Oil on canvas, Collection Nancy Lauter McDougal and Alfred L. McDougal.
James Bishop, Untitled [Stone], 1969, Oil on canvas, 196 x 196 cm, Purchased 1973, National Gallery of Australia.
James Bishop, Tree I, n.d., oil on paper, Collection of the artist courtesy Annemarie Verna Gallery, Zurich.
Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Avenue
Focus: James Bishop
March 13-May 4, 2008
One of the most accomplished yet lesser-known Americans of his generation, James Bishop’s delicately rendered, relatively rare drawings and paintings (American poet and art critic John Ashbery once called them "half architecture, half air") combine European and American traditions of postwar art. Spanning his career, more than 100 paintings on paper and three on canvas — many from the artist's personal collection — are on display.
The exhibition, curated by James Rondeau, Frances and Thomas Dittmer Chair of Contemporary Art at the Art Institute, and co-organized with Staatliche Graphische Sammlung Munich and Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop, assembles 60 paintings and drawings from Bishop's personal collection along with works from private collections in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. Also shown is a selection of works on canvas, including recently acquired Early (1967) and Untitled (1980).
Bishop's art emerges from early exposure to both Abstract Expressionism and a deep, sensitive study of European art. He has labeled himself an "Abstract Expressionist of the quieter branch," citing influences of Rothko, Motherwell, Newman, and Reinhardt, but also, perhaps more importantly, Bonnard, Cézanne, and Morandi. Bishop also draws heavily upon his long study of Quattrocento Italian masters, including Bellini, Cossa, Crivelli, della Francesca, and Lotto. Working within and across these seemingly divergent schools of painting, Bishop found valuable lessons in each: from his American counterparts, the license to explore the agency and romance of pure paint; from the Italians, the qualities of depth, saturation, and luminosity. His approach to painting and drawing is marked by a poetic, reductionist tendency, with a palette that is sometimes, but not always precisely, monochromatic. Indeed Bishop's colors are always inflected by subtle shading relationships.
Early in his career, in the mid-1960s, Bishop painted his first large-format square paintings. He divided his canvases, which measure nearly six foot square, into progressively smaller units — halves, quarters, and eighths. To achieve saturated fields of color, Bishop pioneered an unorthodox method of manipulating paint. After putting down pencil guidelines, the artist applied, with great precision, luminous skeins and pools of paint thinned with turpentine onto a stretched canvas laid flat on the floor, tilting them to control the flow of paint. This process allowed him to achieve subtle, often architectural, structure — suggestive of a house or a building — within veils of finely saturated pigment.
Over the years, the artist shifted from working with large-scale canvas to mostly small paper supports. These works — often painted on irregular-size sheets of paper, with no fixed date assigned to their creation — continue Bishop's subtle explorations of color and structure, allowing material and process to shape form rather than form dictating material.
Born in 1927 in Neosho, Missouri, Bishop studied history at Syracuse University from 1946 to 1950, fine arts at Washington University from 1951 to 1954 (attending Black Mountain College, studying with Esteban Vicente, in 1953), and art history at Columbia University from 1955 to 1956. He has lived in Europe, full-time and intermittently, since 1957, in quiet, modest seclusion from the stresses and pressures of the international art market. This distance has allowed Bishop the intense, solitary concentration his process requires. As a result of expatriate status and infrequent exhibitions, Bishop's achievements have yet to be fully integrated into the narratives of postwar American art. At the same time, these factors — freedom of isolation, distance from New York, and influence of foreign aesthetics — reveal conditions fundamental to cultivating Bishop's originality.
His work has been shown internationally in museums and galleries, notably in a solo survey exhibition with collaborating institutions Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland; Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris; and Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Münster, Germany (1993-94).