ISABEL BISHOP (1902-1988) lived long, but not nearly long enough. Her drawings and paintings grew steadily more sure and strong for more than 60 years, so that one turns away from Bishop's last works aching over the thought of what she might have done next.
Which is not to take anything away from the irresistible and important work Bishop accomplished, much of which is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The hundred works are a study in controlled passion, or rather passionate control: Bishop was driven to draw and paint, but she always knew why she did what she did.
She still was a teenager when she left the Midwest for the artist's life in Manhattan. An excellent student, she thoroughly mastered the styles and techniques propounded by her teachers before utterly rejecting them. She appreciated the Old Masters as only an artist can -- a 1927 self-portrait could hang with any of them -- but went her own way.
She audited every school and movement in 20th-century art, yet through it all every Bishop drawing and painting remained unmistakably a Bishop. In poetic terms she progressed from Milton to haiku, refining, simplifying, distilling her vision into a kind of shorthand.
Her figure studies confirm the suspicion that only women artists should be allowed to do nudes. It's a shame that installation of the Bishop show came just after the closing of an Elisabeth Frink exhibition, which would have paired the English master of the sculpted male nude with the American master of the drawn female figure.
Although Bishop never had to support herself, she was self-consciously involved in the realist egalitarianism of mid-century American art. Something like half her sketches, drawings and etchings involve the "working girl," generally in street and subway scenes. Yet her subjects might just as easily have been the daughters of the rich on their estates, because Bishop's true interest was in the moments of life: the choreography of the sidewalk, the ballet of putting on a coat, the drama of the lunch counter, the importance of the glance, the privacy friends create in public places, the ugliness of laughter.
The exhibit, organized by Bard College, is mounted with extraordinary care. Paintings are flanked by preliminary studies and later reconsiderations of the same scene. Chronological order often yields to groupings by similarities of subject and/or style. In some cases this leads to confusion, but it's hard to argue with the decision to use a cerebral approach to hanging Bishop's cerebral works.
While the sincerity of Bishop's interest in ordinary people is apparent, so is her lack of real empathy with them. She was an acute observer of the street life around her Union Square studio, but she rendered types rather than individuals; she knew her neighbors by eye rather than by heart. Her nudes, mostly done in intimate domestic settings, are more convincing yet no more individual.
The one person she knew was Isabel Bishop, and her periodic, scrupulously straightforward self-portraits are her finest works. The last, done in 1984, is a brooding contemplation in which she wrings a maximum of emotion and meaning out of a minimum of line. One has the feeling that if she'd lived and worked to 100, she'd have pared her self-portrait to a single master stroke.