Elizabeth Bishop as Painter
William Benton, Introduction to Exchanging Hats [New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996]    
William Benton, in his introduction to Exchanging Hats, a collection of Bishop’s paintings, describes Bishop’s denial that her paintings are “art” and his own refutation of this statement.
In 1971 she said, “From time to time I paint a small gouache or watercolor and give them to friends . . . They are Not Art—NOT AT ALL.” They are, though. They are just not to be confused with a process whose order and intensity penetrates the matrix of a life. Her paintings were done differently; her life entered them. They were the product and occupation of leisure, of fiddling around when more important work was out of the way or out of the question. She used poor materials, paper that traveled light and then disintegrated. Her method for the most part consisted of making a simple drawing and, unceremoniously, coloring it in. And yet if she was, as she called herself, a “genuine primitive,” she also understood from the beginning that intrinsic value inheres in the grace of enactment, and not in the obligation to approximate. She was, as David Kalstone said, “aware of the smallness and dignity of human observation.”

Contributing author: Michelle Ephraim, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Responding to William Benton, Introduction to Exchanging Hats
Answer the following question in your notebook—this will be collated so that you can print or e-mail your work when you are finished.

1). Why might Bishop describe her paintings as “Not Art”? Does her claim that the paintings are just watercolors that she shares with friends give us any insight about her understanding of how art should function? What kinds of assumptions about art does she suggest with her denial?


2). Why does Benton disagree with Bishop regarding the status of her work as ’art’? What does he mean when he argues that ’her life entered’ the paintings?

3). Benton notes that Bishop created her art when “important work was out of the way or out of the question”; her work is the product of “leisure” and “consisted of making a simple drawing and, unceremoniously, coloring it in.” Why do you think that he admires her process so much?

4). How would you describe the difference between “the grace of enactment” and “the obligation to approximate”?


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