In an 1885 letter to Emile Schuffenecker, Gauguin describes Cézanne as someone who “passes whole days on the top of a hill reading Virgil and looking at the sky,” in whose work one finds “the essential mystic nature of the Orient.” During the mid- to late-19th century, a new concept of space was discovered by European artists in Chinese paintings and Japanese woodcuts, in which the absence of perspective allowed various objects to claim equal weight on the picture plane. (This view was thoroughly elaborated in Fritz Novotny’s volume, Cézanne and the End of Scientific Perspective.) Ever since, the historical permutations of modern and post-modern painting have shifted to much shorter life spans, requiring constant struggle to retain autonomy and validity.
Although there are other contemporary painters whose work displays an affinity with Eastern thought, especially Chinese and Japanese poetry and calligraphy, in Bill Jensen’s paintings the dark vein of the American romantic tradition, which runs deep in his sensibility, has always threatened to break out. At least in my experience, I’ve never felt comfortable looking at his paintings, just as I’m never comfortable when confronted with anything by Albert Pinkham Ryder.
Jensen’s 1987 exhibit at the Phillips Collection was a good opportunity to observe his compressed, upwardly focused energy, which required not only a vertical format to accommodate its sweep, but personal abstract symbols to stabilize the spatial proscenium. Painted with a variety of small to medium palette knives, the surfaces were tough, encrusted, and dense. For the next 14 years, from 1989 to 2003, the presence of landscape grew increasingly pronounced, spreading the energy horizontally. This became Jensen’s most serene phase. One could, in fact, detect in the gently painted forms, variegated brush strokes and wide tonal rage, the painter’s deep longing to reclaim some kind of immersion with nature—almost the opposite of his preceding body of work. Finally, in 2003, at his last exhibit at Mary Boone, there emerged a bold, intense willingness to, as the painter said to the poet/writer John Yau in an interview published in Bomb magazine in Spring 2007, “try to be an empty vessel that the phenomena—all the forces around us—can go into and through.”
Jensen’s journey, equipped with an unshakable trust in his creative source and an identification with the concept of man and nature as one (through Eastern philosophy), has arrived full circle, to a point where both expressionist angst and transcendence are equally infused and balanced. As pointed out by the renowned translator David Hinton in his insightful essay “Thus” (2010), the word “thus” in Chinese characters embodies a complex set of visual references and a multiplicity of meanings. Essentially this “thus” was central to ancient China’s native cosmology and was perceived as two fundamental dimensions: “Presence” or “Being” and “Absence” or “Non Being.” In other words, while presence yields to the ten thousand living and nonliving things in constant transformation, absence is the generative void to which everything returns to rest before any form of reoccurrence is possible. For example, if one were to compare Jensen’s two versions of “The Tempest” (both pay homage to Ryder’s “Tempest,” 1892), one immediately notices that while the earlier painting, from 1980-1981, aggressively transports the whole canvas into a centralized yet spinning cone that explodes into four unequal, tentacle-like forms, the recent version (from 2007-2008 and included in the current exhibit) feels like one of the most calming paintings the artist has ever created. With exquisite tones of black over violet-blue and burnt sienna, the forms visible only as ghosts revealed by the glossy surfaces against the matte, this painting indeed evokes a generative sense of absence where all forms and colors are in a state of rest. One could call it “pregnant darkness.”
In a drawing entitled “Passare da Bernardo XLI” (2009, ink and charcoal on paper) the relationship between the black forms—“Presence,” dispersing above the weathered surface from what seems to be their previous configurations, and “Absence,” now slowly dissolving into a void—depicts the moment after the two elements coalesced. Similarly, the new and ongoing series of paintings, “Luohan (Cinghiale)” (2009), “Luohan (Red Pine)” (2008), and Luohan (Niafunké)” (2008-2009), are endowed with the spirit of Luohan, Buddha’s disciple, who lives in all things, be they human beings, animals, or places. In “Genesis” (2007-2008) and “Occurrence Appearing of Itself” (2006-2009)—the biggest paintings in the exhibit—one notices many differences between the way the forms in the two works are painted: sensual versus angular or open versus compressed. However, they share a nearly identical horizontal edge that divides the lighter space above from the more dense area below.
Above all, there have been indications of radical leaps in Jensen’s recent body of work. On one hand, they reveal the painter’s capacity for pleasure, which is manifested in his alchemical mastery of materials and unusual sense of color (I can’t think of any painter who can mix such a wide range of earth tones with a full bleed of acidic greens, fluorescent yellows, electric blues, glowing reds, and other, unnamable colors as successfully as Jensen). Also, they are painted with wider spatulas (house painter’s and plasterer’s tools rather than artist’s palette knives), which allows for a greater gestural sweep. Consequently his speed of execution has increased considerably, at least in the last decade. On the other hand, by allowing his earlier investment in personal symbols—as well as his humility before nature—to gradually evolve into calligraphic gestures that can co-exist with other forms on the same picture plane, the paintings are at once expansive and contained. It’s at this juncture that Jensen has achieved both Pollock’s and Ryder’s senses of monumentality, which Bachelard referred to as “intimate immensity” in his luminous the Poetics of Space. Perhaps what Gauguin said of Cézanne is true in the sense that the more Cézanne desires stability in his paintings the less stable his objects become. Like Ryder, who painted those marvelous, haunting marine pictures from his apartment on Manhattan’s Washington Square, Jensen appears to understand that it’s the nature within that recalls, as Charles Olson has written, the “sun inside.”