We are pleased to present the second edition of INSIGHT – ARTWORKS IN THE SPOTLIGHT #2  Paintings on Paper by James Bishop. The selected four works on paper by James Bishop were created between 1956 and around 1993 and provide valid perspectives on an artistic oeuvre defined by an insistence on painting.

Insight #2 – Paintings on Paper by James Bishop

James Bishop – Untitled, n.d.

James Bishop, Untitled, n.d., 20.5 x 20.5 cm, oil and crayon on paper, photo: Annemarie Verna Gallery, Zurich


James Bishop – Untitled, n.d.

James Bishop, Untitled, n.d., 20.2 x 20.9 cm, oil and crayon on paper, photo: Annemarie Verna Gallery, Zurich

James Bishop intentionally does not refer to his works on paper as drawings, but as paintings on paper. As with his paintings on canvas, which were created between around 1964 and 1986/87, he also works with oil paints on paper. These are applied in multiple layers and penetrate the paper at different depths – unlike on canvas, with its accrual of superimposed layers of paint skin. The intermittently overlapping application creates painted areas of varying density with diffuse peripheral zones.

Into these layers of paint, Bishop inscribes lines with colored pencil, pencil and crayon, which combine to form architectonic constructions.

Yet the squarish structures with horizontal and vertical subdivisions are not images of real architecture. Rather, they are remembrances of things visible and seen – buildings, façades or windows from James Bishop’s surroundings in France.

Time and again, however, James Bishop breaks up this system of bars and bands, and parses the combination of horizontal, vertical and diagonal, detached from architectural attributions – resulting in works with freely sketched lines and brushstrokes permitting both completely abstract and landscape-like figurations.

“The paintings which worked were almost like a fictive construction of bars (or bands as bars), abutting or overlapping, an uncertain scaffolding.”1

James Bishop – Untitled, n.d.

James Bishop, Untitled, n.d., 20.5 x 20.5 cm, oil and crayon on paper, photo: Annemarie Verna Gallery, Zurich

Untitled, n.d. shows how James Bishop surrounds his bar constructions – or as he himself calls them, “uncertain scaffolding” – with fine, wildly drawn strokes. These circulate freely between the lines and color zones and can also include rounded shapes. Such forms are reminiscent of the lines and brush movements of his works on paper from the late 1950s. Once elaborated, his past pictorial inventions can thus be called upon by the artist at any time.

Close inspection of Untitled, n.d. reveals that the framework of lines does not rest entirely on the surface of the paint, but makes its way up to the surface from the depths of the color space. Oscillating between abstraction and figuration, Bishop immerses these line constructions in a sfumato2 mist. Deliberately leaving them in a state of blurriness, he thus resolutely opposes their conclusive definition.3

The interaction of lines and colors results in a dual movement of sinking (of the paint seeping into the paper) and emerging (of structures arising from the color space), which seems to animate the paintings on paper as if enlivened by the act of breathing. And a resonance chamber is created that spans the interval between pictorial surface and depth.

The surface itself becomes a haptic experience through the different thicknesses of the pencil and crayon strokes as well as the application of the paint, sometimes impasto, at other times glossy.

1) Bishop on his “new” paintings from around 1963/1964 with the dimensions 195 x 195 cm in “Artists Should Never Be Seen nor Heard: James Bishop in Conversation with Dieter Schwarz”, in James Bishop, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Galerie national du Jeu de Paume Paris, Westfälisches Landesmuseum Münster, ed. Dieter Schwarz, Düsseldorf: Richter 1993, pp. 13–21, p. 16.
2) Michael Semff, “Formen, Farben, Echos, Düfte. Nahe oder Ferne, Helle oder Dunkle Dinge.* Malereien auf Papier von James Bishop”, in James Bishop: Paintings on Paper, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München, Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop, The Art Institute Chicago, Düsseldorf: Richter 2007, pp. 23–33, p. 31.
3) Heinz Liesbrock, “Architekturen des Gefühls. James Bishops Malereien auf Papier”, in James Bishop: Paintings on Paper, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München, Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop, The Art Institute Chicago, Düsseldorf: Richter 2007, pp. 59–68, p. 67.

“For [James Bishop], 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.”4

4) Gianfranco Verna in Gallerynote 5/2017 for the exhibition James Bishop: Paintings 1969–1978 / Paintings on Paper 1956–2016, October 7 – November 18, 2017.

In the paintings on paper, often produced over a longer period of time, the colors are not sharply separated from one other but bleed into shifting peripheries. The marginal zones thus create fine transitions and moments of blurriness. But they also reveal the structure of the works, such as in Untitled, n.d., exposing deeper layers of paint or the underlying paper. The inherent color of the sheet of paper thereby becomes part of the composition. In Untitled, n.d., the yellow paper is evident as a fine, partial border around the central structure. Just like the primed canvas, which the artist recognizes as a valid pictorial surface, the paper thus also remains visible as an actively contributing part of the work.

The mostly off-white or yellowish sheets of paper, often no larger than 21 x 21 cm, come from various sources. In most cases, they consist of reused material and correspond to Bishop’s color palette. His small formats feature earthy browns, ochre, off-white, yellow, on rare occasions blue, olive as well as red tones, and from the 1970s onwards, varying shades of gray. It is a smoky pictorial universe of restraint, quiet and autonomy.

James Bishop – Untitled, n.d.

James Bishop, Untitled, n.d., 20.2 x 20.9 cm, oil and crayon on paper, photo: Annemarie Verna Gallery, Zurich

The majority of James Bishop’s works on paper have no title and are not dated. The artist is not interested in a developmental history tied to a definitive date or title. Rather, the application of paint, tonality, specific proportions, similar linear constructions, sheet sizes

or certain figurations can be linked to one other in association with different creative periods. Within this fluid oeuvre, apart from a number of collages from the early 1970s, there are two groups of works occupying a differentiated position.

James Bishop – Untitled, 1956

James Bishop, Untitled, 1956, 21 x 25.3 cm, oil on paper, photo: Annemarie Verna Gallery, Zurich

One comprises early works on paper created between 1956 and around 1960. These five years represented a crucial time in James Bishop’s life. In 1957, he spent several months travelling around Europe. In 1958, like other American artists, he finally settled in Paris. His second exhibition was held there in June 1961 at the non-commercial Galerie du Haut Pavé. Although far from New York, Bishop was more interested in contemporary Abstract Expressionist art back in the United States than current trends in Europe. In Europe, however, he found points of reference in art history, such as the Italian Quattrocento or Henri Matisse.

During this period he produced works on paper such as Untitled, 1956, still characterized by a strongly evident brushstroke, a gestural aesthetic language and curving rounded forms. Even here, the combination of opaque and transparent zones of color has begun to determine the pictorial composition, though most of the areas are still arranged as a dynamic juxtaposition. In this early period, Bishop had already defined his palette. Shades of gray, brown, red and even blue remain dominant in his paintings on paper. And while Untitled, 1956 is purely painterly, some of these early, landscape-like sheets already exhibit the type of line constructions that can be found in the later architectonic works.

James Bishop – Untitled, 1993

James Bishop, Untitled, 1993, 22.5 x 30.5 cm, oil on paper, photo: Annemarie Verna Gallery, Zurich

A second group of works with special status are the so-called Roman Numbers, which recur over the course of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. As the unofficial title reveals, these employ a vocabulary of forms based on the X, V and I of the Roman numeral system. These appear in combination, such as in Untitled, 1993, or as isolated digits. Bishop sometimes integrates them as elements of layered color glazes, sometimes as recessed zones of opaque color. The velvety painted surfaces are compact and applied with unusually well articulated brushstrokes.

Untitled, 1993 illustrates how Bishop juxtaposes painted and unpainted pictorial zones in an interplay of tension.The Roman Numbers appear here as bare areas of paper between gray-brown color fields.

The numeric figures are not fully formulated, but bleed into the unpainted edge of the paper. Where the number ends and the sheet begins is fluid, with only the paper edge delimiting expansion and extension. Untitled, 1993 demonstrates how James Bishop’s works on paper always take place within a clearly defined space, namely on the precisely cut sheet of paper. Comparable to a trick figure, the question of what is figure and what is ground is thus not clearly defined by the distinction between sheet and motif nor between color and blank space. A definitive translation into a binding numeral is not the intention.
(Text: Laura Mahlstein; Translation: Julia Thorson)

Insight #2: download here as a PDF


James Bishop. Paintings on Paper

Published by Michael Semff & Gianfranco Verna,
with texts by Erich Franz, Molly Warnock and Michael Semff;
the catalog is published in English and German;
Sieveking Verlag, Munich, 2018.

ISBN: 978-3-944874-72-2

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