A modest number of large paintings produced between 1966 and 1987 attests to the inimitable and important contribution, situated between tradition and avant-garde, which the painter James Bishop has made to the substantive renewal and hence preservation of painting.
Through the formalization and generalization of the visual language and thus the thematization of the self-referentiality of the artwork and the process of its production, a small group of painters succeeded in the 1960s to reassert the legitimacy and relevance of their work. In this connection, one can speak of an objectification, of a departure from any form of expressive gesture.
Here James Bishop charted out his own path. All the traditional values had been called into question without apparent substitute. For him, however, it was clear that the corporeal analogy of the material and the painting process constitutes a preeminent achievement of this cultural technique as it had developed in the western tradition. Painting is concerned with surface and physical touch, the activity of painting being a gesture that begins in the body and then manifests its presence and realization in the aesthetic object.
With his paintings from 1961 to 1965, Bishop had initially probed a broader spectrum from organic to loosely arranged and even almost geometrical forms, rendered in a palette that was at times subdued and at times radiant. Blue, red, brown, ochre and green are the dominant tones. Each of these early masterpieces is remarkable. Over the course of this small span of years, the pictorial framework takes on an increasingly important role, with the formal findings relying more and more on the sectional focus and delimitation of the image field and referencing the existence of the canvas as an object.
A radicalization and change becomes evident around 1967. White primed canvasses in a 185 x 185 cm or 195 x 195 cm format, tightly stretched onto a correspondingly large chassis, now serve as the predetermined and bounded territory of James Bishop’s painting, established prior to any artistic intervention. It would therefore be misleading to talk of supports. Rather, the successful painting proves to be a unity of object, pictorial object and production process.
In its fluid and flowing state, the color matter is directly involved in the creation and development of the work. The color material sometimes covers the entire canvas, but in many other cases just half of the available territory. The division usually occurs in a horizontal direction, but can also be vertically oriented. In these paintings, the unpainted part of the canvas – the sections where the white ground is laid bare – is central to a reading of the pictorial sensuality. Through the absence of paint, the sensorially tangible quality of the color matter that dries to form the skin of paint is all the more strongly emphasized and accentuated. This skin of paint is often built up from several layers of varying color, creating a perception of depth and differentiation. With his brushwork, James Bishop underlays the color matter with a regulative framework. This structure, determining and directing the respective flow of the skin of paint from dense to transparent, organizes the inner form of each individual work and gives it its own weighting, its specific complex compositional system and character. The strong colors of the earlier paintings are henceforth transformed, paint is blended color matter, often not clearly identifiable as one shade or another, a fusion of elements with which the production of the pictorial object is undertaken.
Reviewing the life’s work of James Bishop, it seems as though the unpainted portions of the paintings hold a great promise. As early as the 1970s, the experiences, the findings and inventions that enabled the handling of canvas and paint pushed toward a different type of synthesis, away from the generalization of the pictorial framework and toward the disclosure and intensification of the particular. The quality of the particular and specific increasingly unfolds its seductive power. A production of the unexpected is not possible, however. The planning of the artwork thus gradually gives way to the contact between the brush and crayon and a paper surface of compact dimensions. Frequently consisting of found materials, the papers vary in type. They are rarely larger than 25 x 25 cm. Henceforth a dialogue takes place that offers many options yet is simultaneously capable of restricting the new freedoms. The penetration and absorption of the liquid paint into the surface of the paper differs from the way the skin of paint rests on the canvas. An entirely different disposition of time now leads from letting things happen to recognition and intervention. The decision about the state in which the small work attains its validity is part of the creative process.
A comprehensive publication on this group of works is forthcoming. It will illustrate the differentiation and diversity of paintings on paper (Sieveking Verlag, Munich).
Tribute to James Bishop
April 21 to September 11, 2021
AGNES MARTIN Religion of Love | RICHARD TUTTLE Illustration
Publishers: Estate of Agnes Martin Dream Tree Project, Inc. Richard Tuttle Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, Germany
Joseph Egan and Anton Himstedt: Common Ground
Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop Ulrike Growe