One way to approach James Bishop's paintings, seen in New York this fall for the first time at the Fischbach Gallery, is to stress the advantages of their expatriate origin. Bishop has lived in Paris since 1957, returning to this country as a visitor only once, in 1966. His relation to the last decade of American painting, then, has been that of both an outsider and an insider. On the one hand, his art depended fully on the traditions of his native country; but on the other, he has been free from the yearly pressures of abrupt and modish changes exerted upon younger artists who wanted to survive in the New York scene. The results in Bishop's works are clear. He was able to evolve from the 1950s to the 1960s with slow and measured steps that move in the overall direction of recent American painting yet remain unfrenzied by the pulse of New York.
From his more meditative vantage point in Paris, Bishop first assimilated quietly such major transatlantic stimuli as the heroic scale of Rothko, Still, and Newman and the lightdark heraldry of Kline and Motherwell, and then achieved a personal distillation that now belongs fully to the mid-1960s. Works of 1964 teeter on the brink of what could be learned from the secure triumphs of an earlier generation. The emblematic simplifications of these paintings offer a particularly Motherwellian duality between the predictability of pattern and the marks of impulse. Thus, the pure geometry of the square framing edge is first mirrored in the continuous white border, then cracked by the broken-square fields of blue, and then further challenged by the internal canals of more fluid streams of color that seem to have erupted from the intense pressures of a predetermined design. These taut dialogues between the whole and the parts, between the dictates of reason and the rebellions of feeling, reach an even more razor-edged extreme in the newest works of 1965-66 (see fig. 82). Here, the pictorial architecture partakes more overtly of the 1960s preference for a lucid, systematic order, insisting characteristically on austere zones of absolute symmetry that echo the perfect square of the canvas's shape. Generally, a rectangular area of white is set off against smaller rectangles of color in an evocation of those quattrocento altarpieces with side panels or predellas that Bishop, during his frequent trips to Italy, had studied with the erudition of an art historian and the love of a connoisseur. Yet these stark geometric formats are dramatized by hairbreadth irregularities that refine and heighten the more apparent visual conflicts of the earlier work. Thus, at the points of juncture between the major zones of white and the minor zones of color, there are quivering pressures not only of vibrant, irregular edges in collision,