What a difference a month makes. From mid-January through mid-February, the Danese Gallery mounted an overview of contemporary abstract painting and sculpture titled Abstract Redux . On the evening of Valentine’s Day, Danese opened its current exhibition. Titled Fei Fei Drawings , it features the recent works on paper of Bill Jensen, the American abstract painter. The contrast between the two exhibitions couldn’t be more marked. Abstract Redux was dreadful and notable only for the happy face it put on a generation of artists incapable of imagining a world before Warhol and outside of themselves. Fei Fei Drawings , in comparison, is exhilarating and a must-see for any devotee of the art of painting. Yet the difference between the two shows isn’t only a matter of quality. It’s also a matter of shelf-life.
We’re all familiar with the timelessness of art–that art, to the extent to which it is any good, transcends its historical context. For many artists working today, however, what counts isn’t a timeless art, but an art that is timely. How much an object corresponds to the moment is considered the gauge of its relevance. This has resulted in a scene hot on anticipating not the new, but the next. About all this guarantees, however, is that a lot of contemporary art will be old news by the time it’s seen in the galleries. And so it was with Abstract Redux .
Mr. Jensen, on the other hand, is less concerned with contemporaneity than with continuity. His Fei Fei Drawings –paintings on paper, really–play for keeps. By tapping into tradition and transforming it from the inside out, Mr. Jensen sets out to create images that will thrive long after their making. In this endeavor, he has succeeded–and then some. The Fei Fei Drawings are in no danger of dating. They’ll make perfect sense 100 years from now, just as they make perfect sense right now. Hell, they would’ve made sense a million years ago.
I exaggerate, but only in fact, not in spirit. Throughout his career, Mr. Jensen has tapped into a variety of inspirations–from the paintings of early American modernists like Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley to Abstract Expressionism to contemporary Chinese poetry, from which his current series of work derives its name. But the constant in his art has been nature. It’s worth noting that the Fei Fei Drawings were painted in Siena, Italy, a location that surely impressed itself upon the artist. Yet these startlingly immediate pictures shouldn’t be construed as transcriptions of a specific landscape. What Mr. Jensen has done is less cut-and-dried and considerably more risky. He has incarnated nature itself.
If this sounds uncanny, well, it is. Many artists have taken inspiration from the land, but few have inhabited it as thoroughly–or as fruitfully–as Mr. Jensen. Looking at the Fei Fei Drawings is to feel the pulse and purpose of the natural world. With their weathered surfaces, spectral presences and tangled calligraphy, the pieces encapsulate–sometimes brutishly, at other times with a biting elegance–the terrible beauty of the elements. Their power resides in a gruff inevitability. It’s as if they’ve been here since Day 1.
On the occasion of his exhibition of paintings on canvas at the Mary Boone Gallery last spring, I chided Mr. Jensen for his unswerving devotion to the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, an important, eccentric and difficult figure in the history of American art. After tracing the laboriousness of Mr. Jensen’s canvases to Ryder’s example, I suggested Fred Astaire, the epitome of effortlessness and grace, as a more beneficial role model. Whether Mr. Jensen has, in the intervening months, run out to Blockbuster to rent a copy of Top Hat , I have no way of knowing.
And I couldn’t care less. Given the heady mix of intuition and clarity that characterizes the Danese show, I’ve come to the conclusion that Mr. Jensen can do without Astaire. I’m still not convinced that Mr. Jensen won’t continue to worry his efforts on canvas. But if Ryder-worship results in art as indispensable as the Fei Fei Drawings , then so be it. Should Mr. Jensen continue on his amazing roll–and there’s no indication that he won’t–I’ll dole out no more advice. I look forward to keeping my big mouth shut. Bill Jensen: Fei Fei Drawings is at Danese Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until March 15.
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