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Art Review : The 9-to-5 Girls Of Old New York

March 21, 1985|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

Debut solo exhibitions are as common as fast-food burgers, but it is rare to find one devoted to an octogenarian with a distinguished career stretching back nearly 60 years. That, however, is what we have in Loyola Marymount University's California introduction of the art of Isabel Bishop.

She has been around so long that even mature art watchers remember her from their American art-history class, bracketed among the "American Scene" artists of the Depression era. They are as grateful as they are surprised to find her still among us and finally here in the flesh of her original art.

Seeing it at Loyola Marymount's Laband Gallery creates a woozy disjunction in time and place. We're in the Greenwich Village of yesteryear, on one of those sweet, warm evenings when everything was always gonna be OK because you had a coupla bucks and an American dream. Pieces of it are straight out of Dos Passos.

Bishop counts among a tradition of modern American artists initially nurtured on the ideas of painter Robert Henri, the godfather of the Ashcan School. They believed quite simply in depicting American urban life as it really was, scuffling along its daily path, at a time when artistic respectability came only through impersonation of Impressionists or polite Old Masters. The Ashcan aesthetic was a democratic subject-matter revolution soon to be swamped by modernism, but its spirit lingered in masters like Edward Hopper and returned transformed in colloquial American Pop art.

Bishop belonged to a second generation inspired by the teaching of Kenneth Hayes Miller at New York's Art Students League (from the looks of their annual publication, his style is still entrenched there). She was among the bunch known as "the 14th Street School," also including the Soyer brothers and her great and good friend, Reginald Marsh.

Like Marsh, Bishop saw Manhattan through the eyes of Rubens, Rembrandt and Dutch genre painting, but never allowed that to obscure the clarity of her observations of daily life. Unlike Marsh, she never waxes blowzy or salacious.

There is, however, a curious contradiction forever tugging Bishop's art in two directions. Her drawings and graphics embody a robust side of her that never tires of limning the youthful life in the city. "Encounter" is certainly among her masterworks. It captures the subtle sexual tensions between strangers or impersonal associates in a way that only Hopper or--later--George Segal could do. It is an exceptionally solid, nearly scruffy work, but something of a rarity in her oeuvre .

Usually she is more restrained and dignified, preferring, so to speak, the comforts of friendship to the stresses of sex. She keeps a ladylike distance from people. She loves young students full of promise but they are always seen walking peacefully in Union Square, neither demonstrating nor doping.

It is not for nothing that the exhibition is titled "The Affectionate Eye." Bishop doted on drawing girlfriends in secular communion, and the subject recurs for decades. Chums of the '30s lounge in the park at lunch hour, chatting timelessly through the '60s at soda fountains and snack bars.

The artist's empathy for these modest, plucky working girls is miraculous. She captures their changing costumes and body language with Rembrandtesque naturalness and unflagging vigor.

A quite contradictory side of the artist appears in her paintings. A 1931 still life, "The Artists Table," is solidly painted but it's a little soft in focus and the bottles of oil and turp look vaguely enchanted, as if reflecting the young artist's infatuation with the magic of her calling. It's like a painted Joseph Cornell.

Bishop didn't pursue her lyrical side actively, but it lingers on in paintings that contrast street subjects with execution that keeps thinning out. A picture like "Young Woman" of 1937 looks as bleached and poignant as a fresco from ancient Pompeii. It's wistful, like memories so faded you wonder if they ever were real.

With the passing years her painting develops a formula combining real figures with backgrounds in pale pastel grids and little fields of dots, rather like Paul Klee's more abstract work. It all gets a trifle wrongheaded, saccharine and overly schematized. It doesn't even budge the general touching solidity of the work, but it does pose questions about the way Bishop sees herself as an artist. Did she begin to feel that she had missed the boat by not being fashionably abstract? Was there something about being a woman in a man's art world that prevented her from exploring all sides of her work?

The hovering sense of something unfulfilled becomes part of the content of Bishop's art. It turns positive in the work, leading us to realize that we like it because it is finally all about hope.

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