Bill Jensen

New York

at Cheim & Read


Steeped in Taoist and American Transcendentalist philosophies, and with a firm admiration for some of the more eccentric U.S. painters of the past (Albert Pinkham Ryder, Arthur Dove, Forest Bess), veteran abstractionist Bill Jensen explores the notion of painting as a kind of alchemy. His Taoist tendency translates as a willingness to let each painting reveal itself out of the “all-that-is,” or cauldron; while the alchemical “crucible” is revealed in his observation of physical laws (gravity, capillary action, evaporation) and an order of procedure (a recipe or “practice”). In his esthetic predilections and pursuit of endless possibility, he is willing to let the paint do the talking, and it says all kinds of things. Working in small to medium sizes in oil on linen and in various mediums (ink, tempera, charcoal) on paper and antique paper, Jensen included in this show examples of the many sides of his endeavor.

The front room contained 13 works on paper. These pieces best illustrate his method. They often look like calligraphy, a quickly rendered part of a landscape or just linear skeins. Jensen works in layers of tonality, some brushed over or washed off, their ghosts leaving the artist clues as to what his next step might be. In the ink and charcoal Notes from the Loggia XXI (2005-06), the echo of a pale warped rectangle floats toward the upper right corner, flanked on either side by brief gestures in full-on black, very Asian in feeling. In Passare da Bernardo XXXIII (2009, ink and tempera), the multiple layers of forms and gestures all but fill in the field to blackness, with rumblings of light at the center bottom and top quarter. It’s like seeing in dim moonlight: just discernible, everything is dreamlike.

The main gallery displayed 14 paintings in oil. The same what-jumps-out-of-the-void method holds true here. Time Sculpted (2009) depicts a simple pair of hornlike forms that curve from the lower corners to the top center. They are painted in a semitransparent deep violet over a nuanced ocher ground. Equally direct and appealing is Images of a Floating World (Walk of the Wu), 2006-07, in which, toward the top, two verdigris-colored bonelike forms meet like an X-ray of a skeletal joint. Other paintings are much more complicated in their layering and considerably brighter or darker in color. Sometimes the cauldron can be a ponderous place, and very beautiful in its dark roil; the complex paintings are as much a part of Jensen’s point of view as the simple crystalline ones. Jensen works off the grid, literally and figuratively. Nineteenth- and early 20th-century ideas of how painting can work are more interesting to him than a postmodernist postmortem on how—or whether—to proceed with painting at all.

Photo: Stefanie Gutheil: Koi, 2009, mixed mediums on canvas, 98 by 79 inches; at Mike Weiss.