Bill Jensen: Transgressions at Cheim & Read
April 9 to May 9, 2015
547 West 25th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York City, 212 242 7727
How can abstract painting develop — and what kind of history can this art form have? Figurative painting proceeds by identifying new subjects, and, also of course, by painting familiar subjects in unfamiliar ways. Obviously non-figurative art cannot develop in an exactly similar way. Kandinsky and Mondrian backed into abstraction by stages, as did Jackson Pollock. And then once abstraction became an ongoing tradition, working in series provided one way of keeping going. Such otherwise diverse figures as Frank Stella, Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Mangold develop a composition, rework it until it is exhausted, and then move on. What abstract artists legitimately fear nowadays is falling into a signature style, the repetition of a basic composition in varied colors — Kenneth Noland’s chevrons in various colors would be a good example of that. If abstract art is to transcend mere decoration, it is essential for it to find some deeply imaginative way of developing.
Sometimes an exhibition review must deal with such general questions. The gallery publicity for “Transgressions” cites Bill Jensen’s very numerous inspirations — African tribal art, Chinese poetry and philosophy, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, and Russian films. And it offers an eloquent description of his surrender to a fascination with process, and his striving to avoid “preconceived outcomes.” The critical question, then, is how these very disparate influences can be synthesized in his paintings. We have the heavy black line drawing of Transgressions (Flesh) (2013), the brilliant colors of the triptych Loom of Origins (2014 – 15), the blood reds of Mountain Tiger-Sky (2013); and the drips and painted hands of Angelico, Angelico (2012-15). And the nearly all black Now I believe it peak (Huangshan Mountain) (2014 – 15). Each of these paintings is splendid — each of them could, I believe, be one work in a strong show. But seeing them together is like seeing a group show of oddly diverse artists.
Jensen is a much admired senior artist. By sticking to his guns at times when abstraction has been beleaguered, he earned our respect — and the right to be boldly experimental. That said, this is the strangest show, by miles, of a famous artist that I have seen in a major gallery. It’s a very daring exhibition, for it’s as if Jensen wants to put everything in his paintings. Up the street from Cheim & Read is Thomas Nozkowski’s show at Pace. Nozkowski is regularly praised (or blamed) for the variety of his compositions, for his refusal ever to adopt a signature style. His pictures are very varied, and yet, a Nozkowski is always identifiable. What, by contrast, I find in Jensen’s show is a boldly promising incoherence. This is why I admire Transformations even as I fail to understand it. But who knows what I’m missing: I have been wrong about ambitious artists before.print