Elmer Bischoff Paintings
Elmer Bischoff Paintings
20 East 79 Street, New York
October 29 to November 30, 2002
By focusing on the early and late abstractions and leaving out the figurative works for which he is best known, this exhibition offers a very clear look at Elmer Bischoff’s search for individuality. From the beginning of his career in 1947, Bischoff was tied to a specific school or style of painting. Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, the bookend exemplars of west coast abstraction in the post-World War II era, influenced Bischoff while he was a teacher at the California School of Fine Art. His earliest abstractions reference their work and that of other CSFA colleagues. At the same time, the works search for Bischoff’s own distinctive style, most notably through the use of color and an exploration of the expanse of the canvas.
1952 marked the end of Bischoff’s first abstract phase. At this time, he turned to figurative works as part of the triumvirate of the Bay Area Figurative movement, which included David Park and Richard Diebenkorn. This period was the longest of his career and served as the catalyst that propelled him into art-world stardom. In 1972, when solidarity among the figurative artists dissolved, Bischoff once again turned to abstraction and freely explored his own sensibilities.
Untitled (1948) is one of the ‘beast paintings” inspired by close friend and associate Hassel Smith. This image succeeds “by dint of [Bischoff’s] passion for color” according to Bill Berkson, in his introduction to Susan Landauer’s 2001 monograph on the artist [details]. Decadent crimson and orangey ochre compete in horizontal and vertical slashes that recall the blistered marks of Still. Blacks and dark greens give the image an edge that is contradicted by the playfulness of the red and yellow. The paint is laid thickly but makes no peaks of impasto. Instead, it is layered like thick icing. From the upper-left corner, a red square gives birth to an alien-dog creation, its face like an African mask. The surface takes on a deliciousness that is betrayed by the beastliness of the image.
Bischoff’s experimentation with the oil medium could produce great richness and opacity of color and interesting surface effects, but in a work like Rocks (1950) [pictured above] he could push color too far. The murky maroon in this painting verges on the muddy and crowds the front of the image, making it heavy.
The works that pull in recognizable imagery strive toward wide expanses and built-up views. The River (undated) combines Rothko-inspired color fields with pure 1950s gestural painting. Bulky curved swaths of white and blue simulate the water rushing over the rocks. The motion of the brush provides the element of perspective, forcing the color fields in the painting either to protrude or to recede, and gives a dynamism that is counteracted by the verticality of the green tree-trunk in front and a horizontality created by the foliage at the top of the image.
Bischoff’s need to work from edge to edge remains even in his later abstract works. The first of his numbered abstractions, #1 (1974), is the strongest work in this exhibition. Switching to acrylics, Bischoff works leanly and makes changes rapidly and spontaneously. Broad, solid forms of color are carried over from his early work. Color and form are evenly balanced as in the early works, but there is still enough going on under the surface of the paint to keep the eye interested. There are references to his figurative work: an outline of a foot here, a leg there. Yet, there is also a lightness and translucency that produces a profound feeling of relaxation. Released from all previous constraints, Bischoff uses his own language to convey a joyful enthusiasm. It is here that one sees Bischoff’s abstractions as distinctly his own.
In his paintings of the late 1970s, the effect is more Kandinsky or Miró, more improvisational and constellation-like despite their gridded underpinnings. All over effects predominate over distinct color forms. Bischoff uses the brushiness and transparency of acrylic to create compositions that are explosive, their linear forms not referential of any particular object or figure. These images, such as #25 (1977) display what Susan Landauer calls “a spirit of freedom, of complete abandonment to whim and caprice.”
Indeed, what this exhibition shows is Bischoff’s sloughing off of his personal and artistic baggage, the “vestiges of object and place with their attendant volume and mass,” as Landauer puts it. Submerged in the twenty years he worked with the figure, Bischoff’s artistic individuality shines through his pursuit of personal expression.