Bill Jensen

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ill Jensen’s abstractions have long been admired for their unconventional compositions and profound sense of color. Stemming from an intuitive, visceral working process, his canvases seem to originate in an amorphous,

primordial landscape, as if linked directly to the psyche. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1945, Jensen has lived and worked in New York since the early 1970s and was one of the first trailblazing artists to establish a studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His work came to prominence in the late 70s and early 80s—a time characterized by the “return” of painting and its focus on process and experimentation. Then and now, Jensen’s saturated, densely worked surfaces transcend the “struggle” that he attributes to his artistic practice: for him, a painting is successful only when the artist’s initial impulse and the material’s inherent properties harmoniously coalesce. Defined by a fluid, ever-changing search for resolution, Jensen’s work is ultimately determined by the act of painting itself, the result of an evolution that can sometimes take several years to achieve:“Each work for me is not about one idea; it is about an emotional event that must be searched for and clarified.”

Though characterized by the same unpretentious, process-driven investigations found in his previous work, Jensen’s recent paintings are connected to more discernable sources. Accustomed to navigating unique territory with each new piece, Jensen’s decision to repeat specific forms in several different compositions was a significant departure, and required subtle foresight and planning. His chosen format was unfamiliar as well: the majority of the new paintings and drawings are diptychs or triptychs. In discussion, he cites influences as varied as José Clemente Orozco, Clifford Still, Francisco Goya’s “dark paintings,” ancient Chinese poetry, and the distinctive color and light of the savanna region in Mali, Africa. In regards to the triptych configuration, he references the Rothko Chapel, a lesser-known Willem De Kooning altarpiece (from 1985: Untitled V, Untitled II and Untitled IV), and Ronald Bladen’s three-paneled painting, Untitled, 1960–61, and sculpture, Three Elements, 1965. Jensen’s knowledge of art and art history is formidable: many disparate threads weave together as he works, resulting in an unseen but rich tapestry of inspiration.

The Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev (c. 1360s–1430) has provided the most tangible influence on Jensen’s new series. (He also cites Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 film Andrei Rublev, loosely based on Rublev’s life and ultimately a meditation on the roles of art and faith, as profoundly moving.) Jensen’s painted outline of the main element of Rublev’s icon painting, The Holy Trinity (1410)—three angels, seated at Abraham’s table—is evident in several canvases, including The Trinity, Mandate of Heaven and Substance, Spirit and Shadow (all 2010–11). Jensen repositioned the motif as a single, abstract shape floating on a multi-layered surface of subtly-colored ground. In its transformation from the illusory to the abstract, the form becomes

a self-contained, almost reliquary-like symbol for his working process. Ethereal whites, light grays and beigey-pinks host the hovering figure; the colors emphasize transcendence, silence, and solitude.The palette also references a previous group of Jensen’s paintings titled Dem Bones or Chan Bones, which in turn were informed by Chinese painting and its particular concepts of “emptiness” and “fullness.” Importantly, “emptiness” is not a void, but an amphora cradling the cycle of re-birth.

The lighter “trinity” panels are paired with markedly more tumultuous compositions of deep, jewel-like purples and browns, which echo Jensen’s earth-toned single-canvas explorations exemplified by Dogon, 2010–11.The contrast between panels creates a necessary tension defined by opposites: light and dark, secular and spiritual, quiet and loud, and—nodding to Chinese philosophy—“empty” and “full.” Further, the triptych format (which itself enforces the idea of the “trinity”) allows for multiple interactions between the three painted surfaces. Jensen finds the possibilities of different arrangements liberating—each canvas can be re-positioned, rotated, or turned upside-down. More significantly, the format displaces any sense of the temporal or sequential, fracturing narrative constructs of “past,” “present,” and “future” by providing multiple possibilities for each. The viewer’s reading of spatial continuity is additionally complicated by the interruption of distinct, physical edges in the picture plane: the painting’s three parts do not predictably “line up,” nor do they provide a sense of dimensional unity. Large in scale but not necessarily the same size, Jensen’s canvases create steps or “notches” when hung together, again attesting to a time-space distortion. (The notches also reference Italian altarpieces, and the Rothko chapel.) Though rooted in Jensen’s noted appreciation for art history, his triptychs, like his other paintings, distill his many influences, infinitely extending on multiple paths beyond any one classification.

Other recent paintings are directly related to one of Jensen’s heavily worked etchings, Eclipse, 2011, in which a sandblasted plate was scraped and re-worked to remove blacks and add highlights. The “image” that emerged proved fruitful: Jensen copied and then modified the abstraction in an etching titled Sorrow, 2011, which then led to a diptych series of paintings titled Book of Songs (the title derived from an ancient book of Chinese poetry with the same name). For the first time, Jensen used large cartoons on vellum to transfer the print’s composition to canvas; the final paintings are dominated by a graphic, etcher-ly palette of gray, black and white. The Dem Bones paintings noted previously request comparison; Jensen also cites a series of black line paintings he made in the 1990s which have provided sustained influence over the last decade. Echoing the mirror-reversal inherent to printmaking’s process, the Book of Songs paintings are composed of reflected and refracted elements. For example, the diptych Book of Songs I, 2010–11, is a sort of Rorschach test, as if one

panel were pressed against the other, resulting in slightly distorted symmetry. The concept is also evident in the “trinity” paintings: in Mandate of Heaven, Jensen paints the Rublev form twice, its lower iteration like a reflection in water. This double-manifestation confirms and compounds the sense of fractured space, and reverberates with what Jensen describes as “emotional density.”

A similar approach and palette directs a series of drawings made while Jensen was in Italy. Washy, vaguely anthropomorphic forms permeate the paper; the organic abstractions allude to the less deliberate, searching quality of Jensen’s past work but anticipate his move towards the larger triptych paintings. All of Jensen’s works are characterized by his concern for craft. He makes his own paints (using a self-developed oil-based medium), allowing for a broad spectrum of colors (the wealth and variety of whites and blacks provide an ample example) and controlling texture, saturation, and viscosity. Tools are created to fit his needs – butcher knives become scrapers, masonry-grade trowels become palette knives. Even in the more structured iconography of his recent paintings, process is paramount, providing impetus for the works’ execution. For Jensen, process and result are inseparably linked: one is inconceivable without the other. This is the “struggle” that he strives to resolve, searching for the moment that material and content coalesce in unexpected psychic unity.

Maggie Wright


The Trinity 2010–11 oil on linen, triptych 53 x 120 in 134.6 x 304.8 cm

Oracle Bones I 2009–10 oil on linen 37 x 32 in 94 x 81.3 cm

Oracle Bones III 2009–10 oil on linen 20 x 28 in 50.8 x 71.1 cm

Oracle Bones II 2009–10 oil on linen 32 x 27 in 81.3 x 68.6 cm

Luohan (Hungry Ghosts) 2011 oil on linen 32 x 28 in 81.3 x 71.1 cm


Substance, Spirit & Shadow (T’ao Ch’ien 7th C) 2010–11 oil on linen, triptych 55 x 126 1/2 in 139.7 x 321.3 cm

Mandate of Heaven 2010–11 oil on linen, triptych 56 1/2 x 123 1/2 in 143.5 x 313.7 cm

Passions According to Andrei (Rublev/Tarkovsy) 2010–11 oil on linen, diptych 53 1/2 x 78 1/2 in 135.9 x 199.4 cm

Begot 2004–10 oil on linen 60 x 40 in 152.4 x 101.6 cm

Shadow Warrior (Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood) 2005–11 oil on linen 33 x 30 in 83.8 x 76.2 cm

Dutch Rain 2010 oil on linen 26 x 20 in 66 x 50.8 cm

Dogon 2011 oil on linen 40 x 32 in 101.6 x 81.3 cm


Book of Songs I 2010–11 oil on linen, diptych 54 x 84 in 137.2 x 213.4 cm

Books of Songs III 2010–11 oil on linen, diptych 64 x 90 in 162.56 x 228.6 cm

Book of Songs II 2010–11 oil on linen, diptych 58 x 86 in 147.3 x 218.5 cm

Black Sorrow (I) 2010–11 oil on linen 53 x 42 in 134.6 x 106.7 cm


Ch’an Bones Scroll IV 2011 ink on paper, triptych 17 7/8 x 33 1/2 in 45.4 x 85.1 cm

Ch’an Bones Scroll III 2011 ink on paper, triptych 17 1/8 x 33 in 43.5 x 83.8 cm

Ch’an Bones Scroll I 2011 ink on paper, diptych 17 1/4 x 22 in 43.8 x 55.9 cm

Ch’an Bones Scroll V 2011 ink on paper, triptych 17 7/8 x 34 1/8 in 45.4 x 86.7 cm

BILL JENSEN Design John Cheim Text Maggie Wright Editor Ellen Robinson Photography Brian Buckley Printed in the United States by GHP Media Printed in an edition of 1,500 ISBN 978-0-9851410-4-2 Opposite title page: Ch’an Bones Drawing II 2011 ink on paper 15 x 11 1/8 in 38.1 x 28.3 cm