The career of James Bishop coincides with the great movements of Modernist painting in the last fifty years, but he never aligned with any of the strong personalities or dogmas from that era. Bishop left the U.S. for France in the late fifties where he became very well known, but he has been only a minor presence in the art world here, despite having John Ashbery as an early advocate. What this seclusion made possible for him may be seen in the current retrospective at the Art Institute. Bishop’s abstention from the American scene allowed an intense and disciplined creativity to flourish around a small set of themes and materials. “Paintings on Paper” begins paradoxically with large canvases. In these paintings, a simple architectural figure is drawn on the canvas, onto which turpentine-thinned paint is poured in many layers, producing a nearly monochrome, but subtly variegated, matte surface. When Bishop leaves canvas for paper in 1987, it is oil paint and paper that he mostly uses, a troublesome, little-used combination of media that he turns to great effect. For example, the series of slate-blue studies of the Roman numeral “X” shows the marks of the paint, but also the spreading stain that seeps beyond the edge of the pigment, an effect that accentuates the color and the materiality of the paint. In another room, a series of small paintings done on card stock thrown out by a print shop are tiny, intimate collages, almost silent, almost nothing. (David Mark Wise)
James Bishop shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, (312)443-3600, through May 4.