Bill Jensen at Cheim & Read
February 18 to March 27, 2010
547 West 25th Street
New York City
212 242 7727
Bill Jensen’s inspired show draws from several sources: mystical Chinese philosophical texts, Chinese painting, the early American modernists, and later proponents of abstract expressionism and the New York School. In light of these eclectic influences, his black-and-white and color abstractions demonstrate a tough lyricism of their own, without sacrificing in any way the artist’s long-running concerns with beauty. Looking at this highly accomplished, highly persuasive show, one can only praise the range of effects he achieves. While similarities exist in the paintings, each piece feels as if it has been made for its own reasons, so that there is the variety within unity that one associates with accomplished bodies of work. While he is an American painter, Jensen’s interest in Chinese art should not be underestimated; in his black-an-white works particularly, he shows a strong understanding of calligraphic mark-making. He has even gone so far as to commission David Hinton, a noted translator of classical Chinese poetry, for an introductory essay.
It is a dangerous thing to appropriate a style from another culture. Chances are that the artist will translate the style but not the substance of the culture he is making use of. In Jensen’s case, however, the artist utilizes general effects without becoming too beholden to the Chinese. There is some justice in his doing so—many Asian artists, the Chinese in particular, look closely at postmodern art practice in the West; conceptualism and performance art have made an especially noticeable impact on their own esthetic. Given the fact of globalization, it makes sense that artists would be eclectic in their practice; yet their open-mindedness does not necessarily translate into good art. So much the better, then, for Jensen, whose grasp of Chinese art does not paint him into a corner, where his work would become suspect and overdetermined.
Jensen offered three bodies of work: ink-on-paper efforts; egg-and-tempera works on paper; and oil-on-linen paintings. Each group demonstrates his casual yet acccomplished transformation of art history, Western as well as Chinese. The most striking of the Chinese art-inspired paintings are the ink-on-paper pieces, which are part of the “Passare da Bernardo” series; in these works one finds dramatic black stripes, often curving, which reminds the history-conscious observer of ancient seal script. Passare da Bernardo XXXVI (2009) consists of a thick series of connected lines painted in the center of the composition; beneath them, one sees equally thick, curling stripes whose density of tone is lighter. The overall feeling of the work is that of a palimpsest, in which images are written over partly erased images. It is a good way for Jensen to showcase his technical prowess, as well as enabling him to reference tangentially the great Chinese calligraphic tradition.
In Jensen’s egg-and-oil-tempera works on paper, there is not so much acknowledgment of Asian art. Here the bright colors washing over other colors, in some cases structured by curving stripes, tend to take their cue from relatively recent Western art. In the smallish painting on paper entitled With Color XXIV (2009) we see an exquisite rendering of hues and painterly effects: bright red, slightly wandering stripes roughly divide the painting into several sections. Yellow dominates the middle and top left, while orange and blue and a touch of purple is found on the upper right. On the bottom left, a red band encloses an area of pinkish-purple, while four patches of blue, painted as washes above a field of light pink, are seen on the bottom-right quadrant. The work is inspired by the major abstract artists who made New York a home: figures like Pollock, de Kooning, and especially the lesser-known James Brooks come to mind.
Jensen’s colors are lush and even luxurious: seeing them, his audience remembers that the artist makes his own pigments—making his own materials is of a piece with his desire to make work that is indicative of his independence from trends. The transcendent painting entitled Images of a Floating World (Passare) (2009) seems proud of its intense colors, which include washes of red and orange (in the center), a luminous dark blue (in the lower right corner), and blotches of blue and yellow-green (on the top). Purely abstract, Jensen’s intricate use of colors shows him here to be a close friend of the abstract expressionists; Pollock is clearly a mentor.
In Time after Time (1993-2009), a work long in the making, we see a wash made up of reds and deep pinks; their stripes rise upward from the mass on the lower left, above which is a patch of olive green surrounding a light, creamy white. It is hard to find worldly correlations in so resolutely an abstract work, but that’s part of Jensen’s point—namely, that the compositions are worked out so that they remain nonobjective. Jensen is in some ways a reticent painter, removing all signs of a brushstroke. His quietness, though, becomes something else when one regards the casual mastery and expressiveness of color in much of his art.