Tell Me Something Good: Artist Interviews from The Brooklyn Rail
(David Zwirner Books, 2017)
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.
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.
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 the C.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.
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.
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.