James Bishop

James Bishop, Having, 1970, oil on canvas, 77 by 77 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery.

James Bishop, Having, 1970, oil on canvas, 77 by 77 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery.

The painter James Bishop is the unnamed subject of “Interlude III” in my article “Provisional Painting 2: To Rest Lightly on the Earth” (Art in America, February, 2012). At the time I felt there was little chance of his work appearing anytime soon at a New York gallery. Now, some two and a half years later, a selection of his paintings is on view at David Zwirner Gallery. I’m taking this occasion to extract my “Interlude” and also to publish, for the first time, a paragraph on Bishop that did not make it into the Art in America article. (I also mention Raoul de Keyser, who died later that year.)

First, the deleted paragraph:

When I think of veteran painters like Raoul de Keyser ensconced in the small Belgian town of Deinze, or the reclusive expatriate James Bishop who has spent much of the last half century hiding out in the French countryside, the first lines of John Ashbery’s poem “Soonest Mended” pop into my mind: “Barely tolerated, living on the margin/ In our technological society.” De Keyser and Bishop seem to have chosen a kind of internal exile as painters, or maybe a better metaphor is that of the mole, in the espionage sense of the word: for decades quietly undermining the system they belong to with hardly anyone noticing. Among major artists, Bishop may be the most elusive: his work either unseen or, if encountered at one of his excessively rare exhibitions, as reticent as a whisper. Thin color has flooded the canvas or paper and receded, leaving visible a residue of barely emerged drawing that suggests an archeological dig seen through patchy fog. Rather than minimalist, the works are subliminalist. Here’s Ashbery again, this time actually writing about Bishop’s paintings: “The pictures suggested portals or prosceniums, but there was no tension, no feeling that something was about to happen on a bare stage, but rather a feeling that something had happened and might one day happen again: that possibilities are better than probabilities.”

And here is the “interlude”:

The scene is Paris in the early 1960s. An art critic remarks to a young expatriate American painter enjoying his gallery debut of thinly painted abstractions, “I see you’re not very interested in matière.” He replies, with a deceptive nonchalance, “Well, I’m interested enough that I try to eliminate it.” Within a few years the materiality of oil paint takes on a more central role in his work when he begins to make paintings by depositing small amounts of liquid paint onto his canvases and tilting them this way and that to direct the paint toward the edges of some feint pencil markings. He never knows exactly what will happen, how a painting will look when it is finished; it often seems to be “doing” itself. Thin color has flooded the canvas or, as he increasingly turns to smaller formats, sheet of paper and receded, leaving visible a residue of barely emerged imagery: hutlike structures, wobbly Roman numerals, luminous grids that suggest an archeological dig seen through patchy fog. Rather than minimalist, they are subliminalist. For a 1987 show of small grey paintings he has a passage from the French writer Maurice Blanchot typed up and affixed to a wall of the gallery. “Speech,” the quotation ends, “is the replacement of a presence by an absence and the pursuit, through presences ever more fragile, of an absence ever more all-sufficing.”

Cover of Peinture: Cahiers Theoriques 8/9, 1974, with work by James Bishop

Cover of Peinture: Cahiers Theoriques 8/9, 1974, with work by James Bishop