Elizabeth Bishop's watercolors: "two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows"

By Harriet Staff

Writing for The New York Review of Books William Benton reviews Elizabeth Bishop's "other art:" her watercolors. In the 40 or so surviving examples of her paintings, Benton sees clearly the influence of other artists of the modernist era, like Alexander Calder, Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell. Bishop identified with their work not by copying a particular style but by subscribing to the notion that, as Benton puts it, "value lies less in precise replication than in a personal system of marking."

Throughout her life, she collected art and wrote about it in poems, letters, and stories. Many of her friends were artists. She owned a Calder mobile and bought a collage by Kurt Schwitters for Lota, her Brazilian partner. She made “boxes” in homage to the sculptor Joseph Cornell, and the title of her painting E. Bishop’s Patented Slot Machine is a reference to his work. The original editions of The Complete Poems, The Collected Prose, and One Art (her collected letters) all have covers taken from her pictures. With characteristic self-effacement, Bishop scarcely acknowledged herself as an artist—and yet her work, mostly watercolor and gouache, reveals a keen and original sensibility.

Despite her outward modesty, her art displays a confidence and even the ability to poke fun at its own inaccuracies. Bishop never deviated much from her chosen style and Benton notes that there is no evidence in her body of work that she sought to improve or change it with the changing aesthetics tastes of the art world.

By the time modernism reached its saturation point in mid-century, with Pollock leading the graduating class of New York’s Cedar Tavern into imminent glory, Bishop was living in Brazil. The fact that she was somewhere other than New York for one of the defining eras in the history of American art, rhymes quietly with the habits and predilections of her life. The huge canvases and vivid, autobiographical swagger of Abstract Expressionism would have been at odds with her own impulses.