Light and Accident 

Grand Lyricist: The Art of Elmer Bischoff

Back in the 1950s, during the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement, a Bay Area artist named Elmer Bischoff, along with two friends and colleagues -- David Park and Richard Diebenkorn -- developed a new style of painting with figurative and other recognizable subject matter. So successful was their stylistic rebellion that together these painters are credited with launching what came to be known in the art world as "the Bay Area Figurative School," bringing attention to West Coast painting during a period dominated by New York artists.

A stunning collection of Bischoff's work is now on display at the Oakland Museum. The show, "Grand Lyricist: The Art of Elmer Bischoff," includes 64 paintings and 13 works on paper, tracing the artist's career from the 1940s through the late 1980s. Bischoff, who died in 1991, lived and worked most of his life in the Bay Area, most of that in his native Berkeley. As with the work of the better-known Diebenkorn, many of Bischoff's paintings seem to capture the sensual colors and glowing light of California. For those viewers caught up in the daily hassles of living in the urban Bay Area, these paintings may help to remind you of why you still live here.

The son of an architect, Bischoff grew up in the Elmwood district and studied art at UC Berkeley's progressive art department in the 1930s. After serving in WWII, he got a job teaching at the California School of Fine Arts (the future SF Art Institute), where he would be on the faculty with Diebenkorn, Park, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and a number of other artists experimenting with expressionism.

After dabbling in this nonobjective style himself, Bischoff left the school in 1952, and during a brief stint teaching in Marysville began painting in the figurative style. Working independently, Diebenkorn and Park were breaking out of the strict confines of Abstract Expressionism as well. A major show of the three artist's work at the Oakland Museum in 1957 brought some notoriety and attention from East Coast critics; Bischoff's paintings also came under attack because they did not deliver enough postwar angst. At the same time, the artist started showing work at the new Staempfli Gallery on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and he would soon become a tenured professor in the art department at UC Berkeley.

As influential as the work of these Bay Area artists became, theirs was, according to Susan Landauer, the Bischoff show's curator, a "reluctant movement." Describing Bischoff as "a deeply modest man who never cared about being fashionable," Landauer spoke of "his unwillingness to sell out to the marketplace." In fact, as she points out in the show's catalogue, Bischoff's decision to start painting the figure when he did was not a marketing ploy -- far from it. He was simply bored with what he'd been doing in the studio.

The exhibit features some examples of Bischoff's abstract surrealist work from the late 1940s, and some late nonfigurative canvases that allude to his Abstract Expressionist roots -- as well as to an early interest in cartooning. But the pieces that take up much of the gallery are those he's best known for -- large paintings of human figures against ambiguous backgrounds, or interior settings of no specific time or place. In some ways these paintings are more reminiscent of the Impressionists and the Fauvists than they are of the era during which Bischoff painted. Still, as with the much darker work of Rothko, these are mood pieces, to be experienced one by one.

Unlike the Impressionists, Bischoff did not paint from life, but rather from his imagination, allowing scenes to spontaneously emerge from the process of painting. The figures in his paintings are not portraits of anyone in particular -- though some may look like self-portraits (Figure in Landscape, ca. 1957), and some of the women in these paintings might be taken for his wife, Adelie. According to Landauer, people whom Bischoff knew would sometimes see themselves in the paintings, but their identities mostly remain ambiguous, as do the figure's lushly painted settings. Though in most ways they could not be further apart, Bischoff has something in common with Jackson Pollack. Like Pollack, Bischoff relied in part on accident, filling up his paintbrush with globs of unmixed pigments, blending colors on the canvas as he went along. You can see this technique, for example, in the riot of color and dynamic brushwork that makes up the foreground of Woman with Dark Blue Sky (June 1959). At one point, a single broad stroke of light green, turquoise, and white paint zigzag across a sea of darker greens -- just one of many such effects in the painting. On the lower right, oranges and reds combine with greens, and are set off by another stroke of darker blue that matches the sky overhead.

The image is of a woman walking in a garden filled with flowers. Broad strokes define the woman, her dress, and hair. Her profile is conveyed by a couple of simple dark splotches indicating eye, nose, and ear. Yet she is also lovely and womanly as she looks down to reach for some blue flowers (again, a swath of paint). A moment in time is captured here, though the time of day is unclear. The darkness of the sky helps to give the painting greater gravity.

You can see Bischoff's dramatic use of light in an interior painting of the same era. In Woman Dressing (1959), light comes from a window (just hinted at, on the right edge of the painting). The light reflects off the woman's face, her brilliant red gown, and the white fabric she holds in her hands, while the rest of the background is cast in shadow. Ten years later, in Yellow Lampshade, two people stand apart, alienated, in a room with wide open windows showing the cityscape beyond. The room is bathed in the shimmering orange light of the sunset. Nature diffuses the tense situation in its warm glow. In the catalogue, Landauer talks about how Bischoff blurs "identities of subject, time, and place" -- but a sense of time and place is nonetheless present in these paintings, created by an imaginary but very real quality of light.

Bay Area viewers will certainly recognize the landscape of Estuary (1962). More than any other painting in the show, this one seems taken from life. It looks just like the Oakland estuary on a cloudy day.

To put together the catalogue for this show, Landauer interviewed many of the people who knew Bischoff best. This first-hand material was even more essential than it might otherwise have been, because just after Bischoff's death, his home and many of his personal items, including letters and notebooks, were destroyed in the Berkeley-Oakland hills fire. Reading about Bischoff's early years growing up in Berkeley, you can enjoy a slice of local cultural history. Landauer even finds oblique references to the turbulence of the 1960s in some of his work from this period.

Like the rest of us, artists are creatures of their environment, and Bischoff's environment is one that visitors to this show will find quite familiar. These paintings really couldn't have been created anywhere else.

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