THE ARTISTS, POETS and PROFESSORS of BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE (the college featured in the film THE LONGEST RIDE) Part 23 James Bishop (artist)

I fell in love with the story of Black Mountain College and I have done posts on many of the people associated with the college such as  Anni Albers, Josef Albers, Donald Alter, Sylvia Ashby, James BishopJohn Cage,   Willem de Kooning (featured  in 3 posts)Ted Dreier, Ted Dreier Jr. Robert DuncanJorge Fick, Walter Gropius, Heinrich Jalowetz, Pete Jennerjahn, Wassily Kandinsky,   Karen Karnes,  Martha KingIrwin Kremen, Charles OlsonCharles Perrow, Robert Rauschenber,  M.C.Richards, Dorothea Rockburne,  Xanti Schawinsky, Claude Stoller Bill TreichlerSusan Weil,  David Weinrib,  and Vera B. Williams

Guided Tour of James Bishop with the artist, September 5, 2014


Nicholas Sparks Talks Adapting ‘The Longest Ride’ to the Screen

The Longest Ride Official Trailer #1 (2015) – Britt Robertson Movie HD


My first post in this series was on the composer John Cage and my second post was on Susan Weil and Robert Rauschenberg who were good friend of CageThe third post in this series was on Jorge Fick. Earlier we noted that  Fick was a student at Black Mountain College and an artist that lived in New York and he lent a suit to the famous poet Dylan Thomas and Thomas died in that suit.

The fourth post in this series is on the artist  Xanti Schawinsky and he had a great influence on John Cage who  later taught at Black Mountain College. Schawinsky taught at Black Mountain College from 1936-1938 and Cage right after World War II. In the fifth post I discuss David Weinrib and his wife Karen Karnes who were good friends with John Cage and they all lived in the same community. In the 6th post I focus on Vera B. William and she attended Black Mountain College where she met her first husband Paul and they later  co-founded the Gate Hill Cooperative Community and Vera served as a teacher for the community from 1953-70. John Cage and several others from Black Mountain College also lived in the Community with them during the 1950’s. In the 7th post I look at the life and work of M.C.Richards who also was part of the Gate Hill Cooperative Community and Black Mountain College.

In the 8th post I look at book the life of   Anni Albers who is  perhaps the best known textile artist of the 20th century and at Paul Klee who was one  of her teachers at Bauhaus. In the 9th post the experience of Bill Treichler in the years of 1947-1949  is examined at Black Mountain College. In 1988, Martha and Bill started The Crooked Lake Review, a local history journal and Bill passed away in 2008 at age 84.

In the 10th post I look at the art of Irwin Kremen who studied at Black Mountain College in 1946-47 and there Kremen spent his time focused on writing and the literature classes given by the poet M. C. Richards. In the 11th post I discuss the fact that Josef Albers led the procession of dozens of Bauhaus faculty and students to Black Mountain.

In the 12th post I feature Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) who was featured in the film THE LONGEST RIDE and the film showed Kandinsky teaching at BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE which was not true according to my research. Evidently he was invited but he had to decline because of his busy schedule but many of his associates at BRAUHAUS did teach there. In the 13th post I look at the writings of the communist Charles Perrow. 

Willem de Kooning was such a major figure in the art world and because of that I have dedicated the 14th15th and 16th posts in this series on him. Paul McCartney got interested in art through his friendship with Willem because Linda’s father had him as a client. Willem was a  part of New York School of Abstract expressionism or Action painting, others included Jackson Pollock, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, Anne Ryan, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, and Richard Pousette-Dart.

In the 17th post I look at the founder Ted Dreier and his strength as a fundraiser that make the dream of Black Mountain College possible. In the 18th post I look at the life of the famous San Francisco poet Robert Duncan who was both a student at Black Mountain College in 1933 and a professor in 1956. In the 19th post I look at the composer Heinrich Jalowetz who starting teaching at Black Mountain College in 1938 and he was one of  Arnold Schoenberg‘s seven ‘Dead Friends’ (the others being Berg, Webern, Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos). In the 20th post I look at the amazing life of Walter Gropius, educator, architect and founder of the Bauhaus.

In the 21st post I look at the life of the playwright Sylvia Ashby, and in the 22nd post I look at the work of the poet Charles Olson who in 1951, Olson became a visiting professor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, working and studying here beside artists such as John Cage and Robert Creeley.[2] 

In the 23rd post is about the popular artist James Bishop who attended Black Mountain College towards the end of its existence.

James Bishop – Walkthrough led by Carter Ratcliff – September 27, 2014

David Zwirner is pleased to present an exhibition of paintings by American artist James Bishop, on view at the gallery’s 537 West 20th Street location. The exhibition will include works spanning the artist’s prolific career and will present several large paintings on canvas from the 1960s to the early 1980s, as well as small-scale paintings on paper, to which Bishop turned exclusively in 1986 and continues to produce today. Providing a rare opportunity to view the artist’s work, the show will be his first solo presentation in New York since 1987.

Throughout his career, Bishop has engaged European and American traditions of post-War abstraction while developing a subtle, poetic, and highly unique visual language of his own. Alternating between—and at times interweaving—painting and drawing, Bishop’s works explore the ambiguities and paradoxes of material opacity and transparency, flatness and spatiality, as well as linear tectonics and loosely composed forms. Privileging the nuanced and expressive qualities of color and scale, Bishop’s luminous works have been described by American poet and art critic John Ashbery as “half architecture, half air.”1

In the early 1960s, Bishop developed the vocabulary of color and form that would characterize his paintings on canvas for over twenty years: a reduced but rich palette, the employment of subtle architectonic abstractions, and a consistently large, square format that reinforces the viewer’s sense of scale and space. Included in the exhibition are Having, 1970; State, 1972; and Maintenant, 1981, which demonstrate Bishop’s ability to render form, dimensionality, and light through the sensitive and seemingly effortless layering of paint. By overlapping thin but radiant veils of monochrome color, Bishop creates discrete geometric frameworks that suggest doors, windows, cubes, or, as the artist describes, an uncertain scaffolding. In works such as Early, 1967, and Untitled (Bank), 1974, Bishop juxtaposes contrasting fields of white and color to produce simple but evocative abstract compositions.

Related to but distinct from his works on canvas, Bishop’s paintings on paper retain similarly monochrome palettes, while differing in their intimate scale and at times irregularly-shaped support. Devoting himself exclusively to this medium in 1986, Bishop was motivated by the idea that “writing with the hand rather than with the arm” might allow him “to make something… more personal, subjective, and possibly original.”2 In these delicately-rendered works, the traces of Bishop’s hand preserve their charge of personal and emotional resonance, achieving a grand inner scale and restrained monumentality.

Born in 1927 in Neosho, Missouri, Bishop studied painting at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, and Black Mountain College, North Carolina, and art history at Columbia University, New York, before traveling to Europe in 1957 and settling in Blévy, France. His work has been the subject of major museum exhibitions: in 1993-94, James Bishop, Paintings and Works on Paper traveled from the Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, to the Galerie national de Jeu de Paume, Paris, and the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Münster; and in 2007-08, James Bishop. Malerie auf Papier/Paintings on Paper traveled from the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München, Munich, to the Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop, Germany, and The Art Institute of Chicago.

Bishop’s work can be found in important public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe, including The Art Institute of Chicago; Australian National Gallery, Canberra; Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; Grey Art Gallery & Study Center, New York University Art Collection, New York; Musée de Grenoble; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark; ARCO Foundation, Madrid; Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München, Munich; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Tel Aviv Museum; Kunstmuseum Winterthur; and Kunsthaus Zürich, among others. This is his first exhibition at David Zwirner.

1John Ashbery, “The American Painter James Bishop,” in Dieter Schwarz and Alfred Pacquement, eds., James Bishop: Paintings and Works on Paper (Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 1993), p. 109.
2“Artists should never be seen nor heard,” James Bishop in conversation with Dieter Schwarz, in ibid., p. 36
For all press inquiries and to RSVP to the September 6 guided tour and press preview, contact
Kim Donica +1 212 727 2070

Above: Having, 1970. Oil on canvas. 77 x 77 inches (195.6 x 195.6 cm). © 2014 James Bishop

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
James Bishop
Born October 7, 1927 (age 87)[1]
Neosho, Missouri, United States[1]
Nationality United States
Education Syracuse University (1950)
Washington University in St. Louis (1954)
Black Mountain College (1953)[1]
Alma mater Columbia University (1956)[1]
Style Painting
Movement Abstract expressionism

James Bishop (born 1927) was an Americanpainter.


Bishop was born in Neosho, Missouri.[2] He attended college and worked in New York, New York before moving to Paris, France in 1958. Currently, he works in Blevy, France.[1]

Notable exhibitions[edit]

Notable collections[edit]


  1. ^ Jump up to:a b c d e f g h “James Bishop”. Annemarie Verna Gallery. Retrieved 26 July 2015.
  2. Jump up^ “Bishop, James”. Union List of Artist Names Online. Getty. Retrieved 26 July 2015.
  3. Jump up^ “James Bishop”. Explore Modern Art. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 26 July 2015.
  4. Jump up^ “Untitled, 1980”. Collections. Art Institute Chicago. Retrieved 26 July 2015.
  5. Jump up^ “Untitled”. The Collection. Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 26 July 2015.

BISJA0024 Other Colors 1965

I have been waiting to see a large selection of James Bishop’s paintings since the mid-1970s, ever since reading John Ashbery’s appraisal in a secondhand copy of Art News Annual 1966: “It is a shame that Bishop’s paintings, partly owing to his personal aloofness, seem destined for neglect in both New York and Paris, for he is one of the great original American painters of his generation.”

Who was this artist that Ashbery thought so highly of? My curiosity was further piqued when the only other substantial mention of him that I could find was by another poet and art critic, Carter Ratcliff. From various pieces Ashbery wrote, I learned that Bishop had gone to Black Mountain College in 1953, where he studied with Esteban Vicente, and that he liked the work of Robert Motherwell. In 1957 he went to Paris and didn’t return to New York until 1966, ostensibly missing a close-up view of the rise of Pop Art, Color Field painting and Minimalism, the whole caboodle of postwar American painting. Which is not to say that he didn’t know, care about or see American art, particularly by the Abstract Expressionists. Nor did his self-imposed exile in Paris prevent him from traveling to Italy and closely studying the work of artists as diverse as Cosimo Tura and Lorenzo Lotto. He also saw work by artists such as Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly in Paris.

At the same time, Ashbery, who lived in Paris during these years, seems to have been the only American critic of the period to champion Bishop. Was he right? Or was this one of those enthusiasms that poets are known to have that is better left forgotten? The fact that Ashbery wrote about Bishop again in 1979, when he was a critic for New York, suggests he didn’t harbor any reservations about his original assessment.

BISJA0026 Untitled 1962 1963

After seeing James Bishop, which is currently on view at David Zwirner (September 6–October 25, 2014), I would urge anyone who cares about what an artist can do with paint to go and immerse themselves in this beautiful, sensitive, astringent exhibition of eleven mostly square, human-scaled paintings in oil and four small works (all are less than six inches in height and width), done in oil and crayon on paper. The paintings were completed between 1962-63 and 1986, while the four works on paper are from 2012. Whether large or small, the works invite the viewer to look closely and to linger over them, to be absorbed by the full range of their subtle synthesis of structure, light and disintegration.

Born in Neosho, Missouri, in 1927, Bishop belongs to the generation that includes Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011). While he has expressed his admiration for their work, and, like them, was influenced by Abstract Expressionism, he clearly went his own way. Even though I hadn’t seen any of Bishop’s work, Ashbery’s recounting of his refusal to align himself with any of the styles of the times, from Minimalism and Color Field painting to Pop Art and Painterly Realism, got my attention. If anything, he seems to have learned from the various strains of postwar abstract art without being caught up in their ideologies.

BISJA0006 Closed 1974

As Ashbery observed, “Bishop has always been a Minimalist, but a sensitive one: the stripping down is obviously a decision of the heart, not the head.” (New York, May 21, 1979.) A deeply responsive contrarian who never aligned himself with any established aesthetic agenda or critical doctrine, Bishop rejected the certainty of Frank Stella’s dictum, “What you see is what you see,” and its denial of contradiction and doubt, in favor of ambiguity, particularly regarding the relationship between surface and space, and between form and dispersion. Furthermore, in “Artists should never be seen nor heard,” a 1993 conversation with Dieter Schwartz, Bishop states: “I never could do a kind of sixties painting in the Greenbergian sense, and I was a failure at it…” How wonderful! Bishop seems never to have fretted over the fact he could not and did not fit in. For many obvious reasons, I find this immensely heartening.

A number of paintings in the Zwirner exhibition suggests that Bishop disagreed fundamentally with Clement Greenberg, who believed that painting resists three-dimensionality and illusionism. While Bishop has said that he learned from Frankenthaler, he has never been a purist who either privileged one technique over another or strived for pure opticality. In addition, he liked ochers and browns, which he characterized as “inexpensive earth colors,” because they were “impure,” and had “associations to earth, blood, wine, shit etc.”


While Bishop’s list of associations suggests that he is a symbolist and, in that regard, allied with Motherwell, I think this would constitute a misunderstanding. What Bishop’s work does so powerfully and originally is hold a wide gamut of visual contradictions and ambiguities in tight proximity: the paintings blossom out of the various irresolvable conflicts that he sets in motion. Moreover, unlike many of the artists working in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, he didn’t believe that feelings, however inchoate, are superfluous to painting. Rather, he believed painting was a language that the viewer had to learn how to read; he wasn’t interested in delivering something the viewers already knew.

In “State” (1972), a glowing monochromatic square with tonalities falling somewhere among earth red, rust and dried blood, Bishop divides the top half of the painting into vertical and horizontal bands, which frame eight squares. Placed in the upper half, and held in place by the physical edges of the painting’s top and flanking sides, the ghostly bands float above a subtly inflected surface that we look at, as well as into, unable to settle comfortably in either domain. Moving between illusionism and surface, the space seems to expand and contract. Both the bands and the surface keep changing. Moreover, in certain areas, the washes of paint become a field in which a few pulverized particles are visible. Paint becomes becomes both a dried puddle and a disembodied light. “State” embodies a world where defining terms such as surface and illusionism, form and formlessness become hazy. Everything, the painting quietly underscores, is fleeting, a mirage. It seems to me that Bishop connects this visual experience to his philosophical understanding of reality and change.

BISJA0004 Maintenant 1981

Within the square format of “Maintenant” (1981), which is French for “now,” or the eternal and changing present, a steeple-like structure rises up from the painting’s bottom edge, slowly distinguishing itself from the gray wall of paint. Is the structure solid, made of light, or both? What about the paint surrounding the structure? Is it solid, made of air, or both? It seems to be both a solid object and a mirage, an architectural detail and a ghost. It is this duality that I find compelling and challenging. Is reality both a fleeting mirage and something graspable? What about the body, with its blood and shit? Is this too a mirage? A briefly inhabited form that time will soon scatter?

James Bishop continues at David Zwirner (537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 25.

JAMES BISHOP with Alex Bacon & Barbara Rose

James Bishop met with Alex Bacon and longtime friend Barbara Rose in New York for only the third interview he has given in his over 60-year career. An exhibition of work from the early 1960s through the present is on view at David Zwirner through October 25.

Photo by Thomas Cugini. Courtesy of Annemarie Verna Galerie.

Barbara Rose: The 1960s and ’70s was a moment when there was very serious, analytic painting in which people were doing very subtle work—often in close-valued colors, and acknowledging the material quality of the canvas, but in a different way than the people favored by Clement Greenberg. The sensibility in Paris was different. There were brilliant critics there like your friend Marcelin Pleynet and Hubert Damisch.

I lived through that period in Paris when James was involved with what was going on—with other people, artists, critics, galleries. At the time, there were new legitimate things happening in Paris—something I can’t say today—for example, Supports/Surfaces and the magazine Tel Quel, and Larry Rubin’s Galerie Lawrence that then became Galerie Ileana Sonnabend. I think there is a connection between your work and Supports/Surfaces, which is having a renaissance now. Is that true, James?

Alex Bacon: They certainly liked your work. For example, Louis Cane wrote several essays on it for Peinture cahiers théoriques.

James Bishop: I didn’t actually have anything to do with those Supports/Surfaces people. I think about three of them are interesting artists: Daniel Dezeuze, Claude Viallat, and certainly Pierre Buraglio, who has a wonderful color sense and makes strange little things. Claude has a big show in Montpellier now, and he’s still going on repeating this endless form.

My first show was at Lucien Durand which was kind of spaced like a railroad car. The paintings couldn’t be very big and they weren’t anyway. My second show was at the famed Galerie Lawrence. Very much against his brother, William Rubin, and Greenberg’s everything, Larry showed both Joan Mitchell and me.

Rose: It was courageous of Larry to show your work, since his brother Bill was a card-carrying Greenbergian at the time. And Greenberg, maybe he didn’t know you? Because he didn’t say anything bad, but I don’t think he said anything at all about your work.

Bishop: There was a Spanish collector who had a number of my paintings, and who also had paintings by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and others. So he had some say. Greenberg was happy to have lunch with him, of course. And he tried to get Greenberg interested in my work. Greenberg said something so off that I’ve never forgotten it: “He’s much too influenced by Agnes Martin.” [Laughter.] It was just a way of putting it down, getting rid of it.

There was one dealer I worked with quite closely who, like Greenberg, was not very interested in sculpture. He was passionate about painting and color, and he thought the way into the future was Matisse’s cutouts.

Bacon: It seems that you also had a strong response to Matisse’s cutouts.

Bishop: I never got over the show of the blue nudes that I saw in Paris in the 1960s. It’s very clear to me that Matisse dominates his century.

Rose: I see a dialogue with Matisse, but then it pushes in another direction with these earth tones, which, of course, Matisse would never have used. And I think that’s your real dialogue: you’re talking to Matisse. Or are you talking to anybody else?

Bishop: I would never dare interrupt Matisse, but I was telling Alex earlier about the people that I knew like Ad Reinhardt and Robert Motherwell, and how they loved to talk. Pontificating is more like it. [Laughter.]

Rose: Oh, God. Especially Motherwell. I think the central aspect of your work, outside of the drawing, is the luminosity.

Bishop: Which is very possible with oil painting.

Bacon: We were talking before about your process, which seems to be more akin to something like glazing, perhaps, than to pouring.

Bishop: They have to be stretched, and they have to be flat on the floor, or I can’t work with my very liquid paint. It’s never poured, I prep a tin in which I mix up a couple of tubes of oil paint with a lot of turpentine, a lot or a little less depending on what I want to do. If I want it to look a little thicker or if I want it to look a little… There’s one painting here that’s quite hysterical, the brown one with the bars and squares, “State” (1972). I made about 18 paintings like that because there are a lot of different things you can do within those parameters.

Bacon: It seems clear now, having learned a bit more about how you make them, that you must be able to allow for more gradation as you move the paint around, after you apply it?

Bishop: Yes, “State” has the most movement.

Bacon: Is it the movement that creates the different values in those passages in “State”?

Bishop: It’s picking up a stretched canvas that has, say, a square or a bar of very wet paint, very liquid paint. But, the important thing is what they look like, it’s not the technique. That’s just a way of getting to something that I found interesting.

Rose: Did you find anything in New York before you left for Paris?

Bishop: Well, I had seen three or four things that I found very interesting just before I left New York in the late 1950s. And one was Joan Mitchell, one was Helen Frankenthaler, and the other was Cy Twombly. And Twombly was a real shock for me, and Kimber Smith. But I could never just throw things around like that.

Bacon: Can you tell us something about your student years?

Bishop: You know, as a student, we would wait every month for ARTnews to arrive. There was nothing else except the Magazine of Art with Robert Goldwater. I was a student from ’51 through ’54 at Washington University in St. Louis and we would also see things at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Then I met somebody at Black Mountain who said, “Why don’t you come?” That college was falling apart so rapidly you could just go.

Rose: Who were the other people at Black Mountain while you were there?

Bishop: Well, let’s see. The only one I still see is Dorothea Rockburne. There were about six or seven painting students. I don’t know what happened to all the others. The one thing that was so good about this last year was that Stefan Wolpe was there, the composer. John Cage was there. David Tudor would play a concert on Saturday night. Pierre Boulez had sent John his piano sonata, which was only about a month old. I had no idea at the time what I had gotten into.

Rose: Did you ever have a figurative phase?

Bishop: I don’t know. I think so much is figurative. It’s hard to divide a line—except that little painting in there, “Untitled” (1962-3) who owns it also asked me, “Did you ever make figurative paintings?” And I said, “Well, I think there’s a table and chair in your painting.” [Laughter.]

Rose: Did you draw from the figure?

Bishop: Oh, that was the best thing about Washington University. We drew and drew and drew.

Rose: I think if you see it, you feel it, and that’s what’s lacking today.

Bishop: It’s essential.

Rose: Did you feel the situation in Paris, while you were there, was different from New York?

Bishop: There were a number of great intellectual figures still alive in those days in Paris. Georges Bataille and Samuel Beckett and Michel Foucault. But they weren’t interested in painting.

James Bishop. “State,” 1972. Oil on canvas, 72 × 72 1/8″. Copyright 2014 James Bishop. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London.

Rose: They were interested in ideas.

Bishop: And the other thing that was probably important was that a number of travelling shows arrived two or three years after there had been a great resistance in Paris to American art. The first one was the show that everyone assumed was theC.I.A., about the superiority of American Abstract Expressionism. It was the first chance for people to see this work that they’d all been hearing about, or that they’d seen reproductions of, or occasionally one work would turn up in a group show somewhere. Then after that there was a Newman show, and there was a Reinhardt show, and there was a Rothko show, a Franz Kline show. I always had a postcard of Motherwell’s “Voyage” up on my wall, wherever I was. Because you know you could look at Motherwell, and you could look at Bradley Walker Tomlin, and go out and try to do something. But what could you do with Reinhardt, Newman, Rothko? Nothing. You could admire it but students couldn’t try to find something to do with it.

Rose: Bradley Walker Tomlin is someone who really needs to be brought into focus because he’s a great, great painter. But he died so young! He made a very bad career decision, he died [laughs]. Do you paint every day?

Bishop: No. But I do something. Mostly there are the paintings on paper. The works on paper have more “action” than the bigger paintings, ironically. But I’ve been making more little collages lately. There was a whole group in Chicago, but otherwise, they only get reproduced a little bit here and there. I had four in Basel this year. When I was living on Lispenard Street there was a print shop downstairs a couple of doors along, and they would throw out the most wonderful things in their dumpster. I found this whole stack of cards. At times I got to something interesting, where I tried out a color, or something like that, or made a scribble of some kind, and I’d paste it on here and it got to the point where there were about 20-some works. Over the years I probably took out about four that didn’t seem to be right. But the others are all still together.

Bacon: It seems that even though you experimented in a wide range of ways of working, both early on and maybe even now within the constraints of the medium of drawing, there was nonetheless this tightening of formal parameters, beginning in the mid-’60s when you were able to buy 194 centimeter-wide lengths of canvas. For a time, that enabled a certain kind of focus. When you decided to make works on 194-centimeter square canvases, you started producing paintings that mostly have window or ladder-like forms. So, whereas you had been experimenting a lot before, what exactly excited you about narrowing and focusing things in that time?

Bishop: Well, sometimes when someone says it looks like a house, or a window, I say, “It’s a horizontal, a vertical, and a diagonal.” And then if they say, “Oh, there’s a vertical crossing a horizontal,” then I say, “well, maybe it’s a little house!” [Laughs.] Everything comes from somewhere, but people don’t always realize it. You look at a painting years later and think, “that must have been… I must have seen…” Usually in my case, it’s having seen something. I can make a list of about a hundred influences.

Bacon: How do you see your paintings functioning? What is the role of having these structural armatures, like the horizontal and vertical bars?

Bishop: I say I either want them or need them. I can’t get by without them in a way. I think you ask yourself, “What can I do on a large square canvas, or on a small piece of paper that might be interesting?”—first of all for yourself, and in the end hopefully for somebody else, too.

Bacon: In the mid-to-late-’60s, when these large square paintings with pseudo-architectural forms were well underway, you were in New York a lot more, and you showed most often with Fischbach. In a way, this groups you with the other people who showed there, many of whom, like Robert Mangold and Jo Baer, were of a minimal or conceptualist bent. This placed you as part of a broader conversation about painting and reduced form. Did you feel that when you were in New York you were in an active conversation with those people and those ideas?

Bishop: The first show in New York was 1966 at Fischbach because John Ashbery, who I knew in Paris, had written about my work, and he had told Donald Droll, who then saw them. He came around and said, “In September, I’m going to be working at this gallery on 57th Street with a woman named Marilyn Fischbach. Would you like to be shown in the gallery?” That was the first show, which was in December ’66, so that’s how I got to New York. I don’t think I ever would have otherwise. I came out for that show and I found New York very interesting. Sylvia and Bob Mangold are still good friends. But mostly, there was a lot of music and Susi Bloch, an art historian friend who died young, and I went to performances maybe two or three times a week. A lot of small groups were playing new music by new people. New York was very interesting in the ’60s and the ’70s, but then it began to slow down.

Rose: Getting back to the part of Alex’s question about your relationship to Minimal and Conceptual art, I may be wrong, but I don’t think you start with a concept?

Bishop: With the large paintings I have an idea that I want to try to do this and that.

Rose: What was this “this and that” that you wanted to do?

Bishop: Well, it would be a certain color, or colors next to one another.

Bacon: It seems like essentially you’re experimenting with different ways of playing out a vocabulary? Like in “Untitled (Bank)” (1974) you play with the primed white as an active color.

Bishop: The reason that part of the painting only comes up that high, is because it’s not a bank like Credit Suisse, it’s bank like dirt, like a riverbank. There’s some red sort of leaking out of that part of the painting.

Bacon: We were talking earlier today about how, since the whites in your work are not painted, by you at least, since the canvas comes to you from the manufacturer already primed with that white ground, and then you didn’t paint the top, but you painted the bottom half, it functions almost literally like a bank, right? Because, even though you’re using very thin paint, it’s more built-up than the white ground. In the same way that you create those crossbeam forms in a painting like “Early” (1967) by making ridges as you push and move the paint around, it creates this kind of very subtle, but nonetheless material, difference. And it creates a spatial effect where the white, even though it’s not receding endlessly into space, it’s nonetheless quite literally just behind the painted passages.

Bishop: It’s awfully hard to get it to go behind, it’s so strong optically, but you know sometimes I want it to be fairly nicely done, so I would draw my very wet brush along this way but if you push it the other way, it will look torn, and I think that goes back to Esteban Vicente’s collages, and Motherwell’s, too. And I always liked that look. There’s also something about the kind of flatness, and shiny look of that canvas with only one coat of primer, that you can make things look a little bit like paper.

Bacon: I thought it was stunning the way you allow that primer to have that luminosity, but it’s kind of contained. You talk a lot about wanting the viewer to get up close to the work, and there’s obviously so much detail, and so much happening in that kind of intimate engagement.

Rose: Intimacy is a very good word. Barnett Newman for example talked about wanting the viewer to have an intimate experience with the work.

Bacon: Is that why you chose the human scale of the 194-centimeter square?

Bishop: Yes, and I really do think that they should be looked at up close.

Bacon: Looking at the work up close I felt like it was similar to how with certain people—they’re great on first encounter, but when you learn their quirks  things go to a whole new level. Your paintings really open up in this kind of way when you spend time with them.

Bishop: [Laughs.] These rooms at David Zwirner, in addition to being really nice shapes and sizes, also change during the day. We were putting the paintings up in the morning, and when we came back in the afternoon I saw some things that I hadn’t seen before. I like that very much.

Bacon: When I saw the show, I couldn’t leave. Because somehow every time I thought I’d seen it all, gotten all the paintings had to offer—even in the best way—at just that instant they would slyly let slip something new. They have a very interesting personality. They’re very much reserved, and they’re certainly not shouting at you but, nonetheless, they like to keep on talking if you’re willing to listen carefully.

Rose: There you go, and there he is! I’ve always said, “If it’s authentic art, the artist and the work are the same.” The problem arises when an artist wills something because they want it to be liked or whatever, it doesn’t work. In the end you can only paint yourself. Did you have any kind of relationship with Reinhardt?

Bishop: Well I met him and he asked me to come and see him and I did. We sat and talked at that huge window in his studio that looks out toward Washington Square.

Installation view, James Bishop, David Zwirner, New York, 2014. © 2014 James Bishop; courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London.

Rose: I used to visit Ad a lot myself. In his work, there is a sense of the emerging form, which is not in a field. His work doesn’t create foreground/background disjunctions either. I feel there’s some kind of a relationship with your work.

Bacon: What’s interesting is that we’re talking about looking from up close and I think Reinhardt is actually the only one of those artists whose work is not meant to be looked at from up close. Even though there’s a certain pleasure to investigating their velvety surfaces.

Rose: Right! You have to sit back and wait for the form to emerge.

Bacon: Exactly, that’s why he would install barriers and things like that, in part to protect them but also in part because to see them unfold, you had to be at a distance, they didn’t work if you had your nose in them. He created a certain intimacy in distance and I think the intimacy of your paintings, James, is of a very similar nature. I think the David Zwirner galleries work really well at fostering that sense of intimate contact with your paintings.

Bishop: They’re wonderful spaces!

Rose: I think there’s one other point, and it’s really important and that is about intimacy, and impact, and time. The thing Greenberg wanted was the “one shot painting” you got right away. Great, you get it right away and then what? Meditative paintings take time to experience. I see you as a meditative painter, Ad was a meditative painter for example. Now, however, people don’t want to spend the time it takes to experience the work. I think perhaps now European time is very different from American time.

Bishop: Yes.

Bacon: Do you feel the act of making is meditative? Would you agree with Barbara’s statement? That the act of making, the time, the working out of the work is meditative for you?

Bishop: Perhaps not meditation in the strict sense of the word, but something very close. But I don’t know if I would call it “meditative.”

Rose: They certainly don’t look labored. They don’t look too worked over.

Bishop: No, because you wouldn’t do that with most of the paintings. With the large ones, I knew pretty much what I wanted to do and then it either turned out or it didn’t, and some of it was more interesting. At any rate it might take about a day or two but with the works on paper, sometimes I come back months later, and put on a little something more, and that’s what I like about them.

Bacon: But on that general note, it seems interesting to me to read your recollection of this conversation with Annette Michelson, about your first show, where she said that you were not interested in materials. You answered, “I’m interested in them insofar as I try to eliminate them.” But then, seeing the paintings, I think Molly Warnock is the only one who has noticed that you often leave in things like the paintbrush’s bristles, if they fall off, even the marks made when the paint splashes are left as is. It’s like, even if you’re trying to kind of get rid of the materiality of certain things, you leave in the materiality of any “accidents.”

Bishop: Well that’s basically what life is. My life is just a series. Everyday you can fall down stairs, or whatever.

Rose: Don’t do that! [Laughs.]

Bacon: Barbara, maybe you see what I mean here in “Closed” (1974)? This painting works kind of like a Reinhardt, with close-valued tones that cause the forms to emerge slowly over time. And then this one, “Untitled (Bank)” you can look at in an instant, but it has this undercoat of paint that comes through with close looking. So they both have this temporal unfolding for me, in time and through color, but they’re very differently achieved.

Rose: “Closed” reminds me of things that Marc Devade was doing around the same time. It’s really very beautiful. It’s almost as if the white comes forward, which is really strange.

Bishop: People have said that about Marc and me, but I don’t see it. In terms of the white in the paintings, I purposefully chose the off-white wall color for this show because I’m quite hysterical about white walls. I don’t think you can see anything on a white wall. And so I told them to take a big tin of off-white and put in some raw umber. I think it stays behind the paintings very nicely, especially when they’ve got the white in them. It just stays there, and you don’t have to fight it. You wouldn’t look at paintings in a snowstorm! We’re here at noon, and I think I see more in this today. It seems to be a very good time. The forms in this painting, “State” are still closed, but it’s more open than it was. It lets me see the divisions.

Bacon: Do you prefer that the divisions be more visible?

Bishop: Well I don’t want to make a monochrome! I don’t want to make a square that’s all one thing. The most important thing is finding some way to divide up the surface that is interesting, and you’d be surprised how much you can get out of this kind of thing, putting it this way and that way. That’s why there are so many that are made like that, 18 altogether.

Bacon: What I was trying to get at is that it seems like when you got to the 194-centimeter square canvas, then you had this idea that you could explore very similar imagery in multiple works.

Bishop: The roll, you know, is 194 centimeters wide. And then I made the square. Even then, the early paintings are sometimes rectangles, either vertical, but more often horizontal. But I didn’t realize that the square was a good idea until I stretched it, and then I realized what it was.

Bacon: Because this is also how you were making them, with this proximity, this arm-length distance, right? This kind of interaction with the canvas as you’re laying down the paint, and then moving it to see what painterly effects you can achieve. So that must have been exciting, after having done such a variety of work, isolating certain things that could be worked through in these more subtle variations, right?

Bishop: The exciting part was when you were trying to do the parts in the middle of the canvas and not fall in. That was exciting! It’s usually two squares that come together, like in “State.” But “Closed” is different in that way, they overlap in the middle. I think it’s the only one that was that way.

Bacon: You only would paint two coats of paint, right? There’s only two coats of paint on the paintings. They’re not highly worked or anything.

Bishop: That’s enough. You just need the undercoat and the overcoat.

Rose: This was painted on the floor? That was the way Helen Frankenthaler and many of the color field painters—and, of course, Pollock—worked.

Bishop: Yes, I couldn’t do it otherwise.

Bacon: How do you feel about people saying that these square forms reference something like the structure behind them? Like the stretcher?

Bishop: The reading of them as referential to the paintings’ material structure is really off, and if they think it looks like a door or something, what does it matter?

Bacon: You prefer that to the structural reading?

Bishop: Well, the stretcher bars are only about that wide [gestures], if people look at the back, they would find that the band I painted is not as wide as the stretcher bar. The best thing that people could say is: “What does it look like? It looks like a painting.” Art is art is art.

Rose: So why did you stop making large paintings?

Bishop: Because I found it more interesting to work smaller on paper. I just lost interest in doing the sort of things that I did before. I can go on working at my speed on paper for as long as possible. Someone asked if I was working, and I said not very much, but I don’t worry about it, I just do what I feel like doing.

Bacon: So the works on paper haven’t ever inspired you to work something out in a painting? You never thought, “Oh, this is an idea that I could work out on canvas?” It’s enough to just work it out on paper?

Bishop: Yes, I do sometimes think that this work on paper might make a good painting. But the more I thought about it, the less I was convinced that it was necessary. That it should just be what it was—a work on paper.

Bacon: Here you leave in the fallen bristles from your brush. These little accidents give the painting a particular life and personality.

Bishop: I like the mistakes. There are a lot of mistakes in that very disheveled one, “Other Colors” (1965). It looks like something awful has happened and it’s coming up out of the sewer.

Bacon: It’s easy to walk quickly by these paintings and not get anything, they aren’t going to reach out and shout at you. You have to come to them, but if you do, there’s a lot to get out of them.

Rose: I agree, there’s a lot to see if you take the time to look. What happens now is that American culture has become so technological and if you don’t get it in 30 seconds, it’s over. And that’s a real problem.

Bishop: I hope it’s not very antisocial, but I don’t really feel that I should be trying to make things as easy as possible. I like to make it a little difficult.


Alex BaconALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curatedCorrespondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.

Barbara RoseBARBARA ROSE is an art historian and curator who lives in New York and Madrid, Spain.


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