Elmer Bischoff’s haunting figurative paintings


Elmer Bischoff, “Motgomery Block” (1956-59), oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches (all images courtesy of the George Adams Gallery)

Curator and art historian Susan Landauer met Elmer Bischoff in 1985, while a student at Yale, and this meeting contributed to her first book: San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism (1996). Landauer then organizes his retrospective, Elmer Bischoff: The Ethics of Painting, for the Oakland Museum of California (October 31, 2001 – January 13, 2002). In her essay for the retrospective catalog, she called Bischoff a member of the “Bay Area Figurative Triumvirate.” The other two members were David Park and Richard Diebenkorn.

This is how poet and art critic Bill Berkson defined the relationship between the three painters in his “Introduction: The Searcher,” which was also included in the catalog of the Oakland Museum of California:

If David Park was the classicist of the group’s founding triad, and Richard Diebenkorn the modernist, Bischoff was the romantic. (These distinctions seem a bit picky, however, when you consider that all three were typical modern Americans in the pastoral fashion.) Park continued to paint figures until his untimely death at the age of forty- nine years in 1960, while during the next decade and a half, first Diebenkorn (in 1967) then Bischoff (in 1972) returned to abstraction, although markedly different from those they had practiced in their youth.

Elmer Bischoff, “Figure with Tree” (1972), oil on canvas

Unlike Park and Diebenkorn, Bischoff was never adopted by New York and never had a museum exhibit in that city. I think Berkson understands one of the reasons he describes Bischoff as a “romantic,” suggesting that there is too much vanishing and idealization in his figurative paintings, and not enough intellect and urbanity for one. New York audience, which was raised on the work of Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, and Jane Freilicher (all championed by Berkson).

How else to explain why Elmer Bischoff: Figurative paintings at the George Adams Gallery (June-August 2015) is, according to the gallery’s press release, “[the first] New York exhibition in 25 years to present Bischoff’s figurative paintings. Over the years I have admired Bischoff’s paintings and drawings, which I have seen in museums and in group exhibitions in galleries, mainly on the West Coast, but I had never seen a large group of his figurative paintings, for which he is best known. On the contrary, the Adams exhibit reminded me that Bischoff is the least known of the East Coast Triumvirate, as his late abstractions were also rarely seen here.

The eleven paintings in the exhibition date from 1954 to 1972, covering everything except the first two years he worked figuratively. I found the experience paradoxical: happy to see paintings of different phases while simultaneously wishing there was a greater selection in a more spacious setting. Bischoff may have gotten his due in San Francisco, but he certainly didn’t get it in New York, and I hardly consider him a regional painter.

Elmer Bischoff, “Playground” (1954), oil on canvas, 68 x 55 inches

The paintings could be divided into about three periods. Edvard Munch’s color is an obvious influence on the use of sickly greens, dark purples and burnt oranges in “Playground” (1954), the first work in the exhibition. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec probably inspired the woman’s face in the upper right corner. At this point Bischoff was basing his paintings on preparatory sketches and had yet to figure out how to incorporate the improvisational methods we associate with Abstract Expressionism into his figurative works.

What I find interesting is that Bischoff, taking his inspiration from the end of the 19e the symbolism of the century and post-impressionism, seems to be moving backwards instead of moving forward. The taller figure of “Playground” is in a pose of sagging dejection – she feels left out, as the two girls to her left, in the middle, happily fly kites. States of isolation – what one might call the dark side of domesticity and community – are recurring themes in Bischoff’s work. These are also areas avoided by his painterly counterparts in New York City, where many figurative artists aspired to achieve the cool detachment of pop and minimalist artists.

In the Cityscape, “Montgomery Block” (1956-59) and the genre painting, “Woman Getting a Haircut” (1962), it is evident that Bischoff carefully examined the work of Edward Hopper and other artists who focused on the ordinary. life. One of the reasons Bischoff ditched abstraction was because it was becoming too airtight, possibly due to the influence of Clyfford Still. Bischoff is best known for his paintings from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, which focus on anonymous figures, usually in an urban setting. “Woman having her hair cut” fits comfortably into this category. The lavish handling of the paint, the moody palette and the pearly light could not have been achieved by anyone else. Is it because of their relationship with Edward Hopper that these paintings are not better known in New York?

What is missing from this exhibition is an example of the violent seascapes that Bischoff produced in the mid-1960s. A good example is “Blue Clouds” (1963), which is part of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. However, by including figurative works such as “Figure at Window with Boat” (1964) and the later mythical paintings, “Figure, Boat, Clouds” (1971) and “Figure with Tree” (1972), the exhibition suggests that ‘There are more sides to Bischoff’s figurative paintings than his urban scenes, and the full extent of what he did between 1952 and ’72 is still unknown, especially on the east coast.

Elmer Bischoff, “Figure at Window with Boat” (1964), oil on canvas, 91 x 79 1/2 inches

In the apocalyptic “Figure at Window with Boat” (1964), a woman leans on what I think is a parapet, gazing at a lonely sailboat. The sky above is filled with oily black clouds edged in red. I couldn’t help but feel that the painting was swayed by the feelings of unease, terror and fear that gripped America in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the bombing. white supremacist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, both in 1962, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy in ’63. Inspired by Albert Pinkham Ryder and paintings such as “Toilers of the Sea” (1880) and “Marine-Boat at Sea” (1893-94), What Is the Sailboat, which also appears in “Figure, Boat, Clouds ”(1971), symbolize?

Berkson is correct that Bischoff works in a pastoral fashion, but he fails to recognize that the dream worlds of “Figure at Window with Boat” and the later mythical paintings are obsessed. As someone who preferred Katz’s surface freshness and glaze of sociability, it’s understandable that he is put off by the hustle and bustle and isolation that pervades Bischoff’s figurative paintings. The sky over Bischoff is too hot and the rough seas are too rough. The mythical figures are too tall and uncomfortable, not quite comfortable in the natural world, which is made up of paint slathers. They know that clouds and waves are proof of change and dispersion, of the inevitability of chaos, and there is little they can do about it.

Elmer Bischoff, “Figure, Boat, Clouds” (1971), Oil on canvas 80 x 83 3/4 inches

Bischoff comes from the tradition of American painting which includes Ryder and Hopper, both convinced that loneliness was a necessary condition. Park and Diebenkorn have had museum retrospectives and large monographs devoted to their work. Bischoff deserves the same.

Elmer Bischoff: Figurative paintings continues at the George Adams Gallery (525-531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until August.

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