I like looking at Bill Jensen’s paintings the same way I like watching little league baseball players. In both cases, all of their emotions are right on the surface. Emotional investment is an increasingly uncommon quality in the world today, but it was visibly evident in Jensen’s latest exhibition of paintings at Mary Boone’s gallery uptown. This show, which closed just recently, was the latest in a series that has defined the painter’s newfound and forcefully reinvigorated style. I think the shift first emerged in 2000 with an exhibition of works on paper at Danese that was an absolute tour-de-force—a rare event that many artists are still discussing. This was followed the next year by a spirited show of paintings at Boone’s newer and cavernous Chelsea space. A second stunning run of works on paper returned to Danese last year, and this most recent show with Boone uptown was no less striking, and, in fact, quite theatrical given the gallery’s dark ambience that was enhanced by slatey skim-coated walls and directional spot lighting.
Jensen’s work has long been of interest, especially among painters, with whom he has had a near cultish following and an enviable reputation since the late ‘70’s. The artist’s dogmatic preference for American visionary painters such as Albert Pinkham Ryder, Ralph Albert Blakelock, and Arthur Dove is well known. I couldn’t help but draw my own comparisons between Jensen’s impulsive abstractions and the melancholy premier-coups of Edwin Dickinson, whose peculiar brand of Yankee expressionism was concurrently on view in a major retrospective at the National Academy of Design this spring. Jensen and Dickinson are two very different kinds of painters, but I felt a kindred restlessness and intemperance with paint and painting knives at both exhibitions.
It should be noted that Jensen’s direct influences are less obvious now than when he was Captain Crusty of the Joan Washburn Gallery, and his paintings had more in common with the proto-abstract vernacular of Gregory Amenoff and the odd hermeticism of Gary Stephan, both of whom are his contemporaries. Jensen was admired for his encrusted surfaces and labor-intensive processes at that time—a brand of painting ethics. His new work still retains the deep focus of the old, but without so much clinging matter, in every sense of that word. The paintings are lighter, and burn more efficiently.
Like so many abstract painters of today, including the omnipresent Brice Marden and monastic Jake Berthot, Jensen seems to have a deep fascination with Eastern culture where at least a philosophical stance and an approach towards the handling of paint—the tension between freedom and control—are still seamlessly unified. Six of the paintings in this recent show were from the artist’s ongoing “Images of the Floating World” series, itself a nod to the printed masterworks of Japanese Ukiyo-e which have been inspiring Western painters since the Post-Impressionist period. Their influence here was mostly felt through Jensen’s use of color at full bleed and his intentional choice of super-acidic pinks, greens and biting blues. This series, however, which dominated one wall of the gallery, had a distinct airiness one might not necessarily associate with woodblock prints.
This show should be considered a personal triumph for the artist and a true pleasure for anyone with a heart, mind, and eyes. It’s just too damn unusual to see anything anymore that’s painted so sensuously. Touch is a vanishing quality in terms of contemporary art. From top to bottom, all of the paintings were seething with light/color/energy. “Locus” and “Howl” were as intensely irradiated as a bunch of Chilean grapes. Jensen’s penchant for mixing hard bright color with swampy earth tones leads to such rich and sulfurous combinations. Even though they were listed as merely “oil on canvas”, many of the painting had tell-tale matte surfaces that indicated some kind of adulteration—the addition of tempera or dry pigments perhaps as was the case with the works on paper. Rembrandt sometimes mixed in similar materials in order to achieve polytonality. “Summa” was another excellent painting that included some of Jensen’s stock gestural flares and scraped out, negative brushwork that appeared almost like Old Master X-rays from the technical section of some Met monograph. The paintings that were located in the adjacent small gallery looked like old dances, recognizably individual but defined by moves made famous in another era.
It has been said by some that Jensen’s current work rests too comfortably in reworking the conventions of Abstract Expressionism. I think that the current Michael Goldberg show at Lennon Weinberg might be a better example of something this. There are many paintings by Franz Kline presently on view at C&M Arts that are about the same size as Jensen’s, but the scale and the thrust of the work is altogether different. Jensen’s work is earthier; dense and bottom heavy like a terrarium. Jensen’s paintings are probing, and perhaps even scrappier than Kline’s, which in comparison now seem flighty. This is no small distinction, Kline is a painter of the highest order, and like Jensen, immensely gifted and somewhat underappreciated.
One really gets the sense from this show that Jensen is reaping the rewards from his lifelong investigation in paint and his unwavering belief in the power of its renewable properties. How else could anyone possibly reach such a state? A great painter has arrived without leaving.
Michael Brennan is a New York painter who writes on art.