With Grand Lyricist: The Art of Elmer Bischoff, the Oakland Museum of California opens the most comprehensive retrospective to date of the work of Elmer Bischoff, the artist who, with Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, is credited with launching the Bay Area figurative movement. the exhibition features 64 paintings and 13 works on paper that trace the evolution of Bischoff's career, from his early abstract-surrealist efforts to the great nonobjective paintings of the 1980s, with special emphasis on the distinctive figurative paintings that brought him acclaim.
The Bay Area figurative movement was perhaps the first school of painting that put the West Coast on an artistic map dominated by New York painters. Arising out of the post-World War II resurgence of energy as artists returned to their studios (Bischoff, for example, had served as a lieutenant colonel in intelligence services in England), the movement evolved from a group of abstract expressionist painters working in Northern California. Beginning in the late 1940s, however, their work began to shift to a distinctly new direction, assuming the bold exuberance of improvisational jazz and cartooning in larger-scale works. By the early '50s, the principal painters in the movement had made the final, unexpected turn that brought them to the figure, an approach completely out of step with serious painting as it was then understood and one that would bring its principal practitioners to national prominence.
Elmer Bischoff's role in the Bay Area figurative movement was central. He was a Bay Area native: born and raised in the Elmwood district of Berkeley, the son of a successful architectural designer who made frequent visits to Southern California for design ideas, taking his talented son with him to make sketches of homes in Pasadena and Brentwood. Rejecting his father's proffered career in architecture, Bischoff studied art at the University of California under the Berkeley School modernists Worth Ryder, Erle Loran and Margaret Peterson, where he became a self-professed disciple of Picasso. Following the war, he joined David Park, Hassel Smith and Douglas MacAgy on the faculty at California School of Fine Arts (CSFA; now the San Francisco Art Institute), where he also played trumpet in the Studio 13 Jazz Band with other faculty members (Park played piano).
Bischoff's lifelong residency in the Bay Area would be interrupted only by a three-year teaching engagement at Yuba College in Marysville, California after he had resigned in protest from CSFA following Hassel Smith's dismissal. This would be an intensely productive period, and his return to San Francisco in 1956 would be followed in 1957 by a seminal group exhibit at the Oakland Art Museum (precursor to Oakland Museum of California) titled Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting. By 1959 his work was being handled by New York dealer George Staempfli, he had received a Ford Foundation grant, and he had moved into a permanent studio on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley.
Throughout the sixties Bischoff continued taking his figurative work in a succession of new directions, drawing praise for his heated, emotionally charged paintings of isolated figures and his ambiguous, atmospheric interior studies of figures, frequently focusing on couples. He accepted a teaching position at U.C. Berkeley and, for the first time, traveled extensively.
But by the early 1970s Elmer Bischoff would again reinvent himself as an artist, beginning to work in a new medium--acrylic--and painting in a style of gestural abstraction that evoked elements of Kandinsky and Miró but also referred back to his earlier interest in surrealism and the cartoons of George Herriman. In their improvisatory bravura, the paintings were signature Bischoff. The artist Christopher Brown would later remark that the mood of these canvases was so lively that they have the look of noise. (Bischoff referred to this break from figurative work as leaving a church and entering a gymnasium.) He would continue to explore this style until his death at age 74 in 1991 in Alta Bates Hospital, Berkeley.
No less influential in Bay Area painting were Elmer Bischoff's contributions as a teacher. Generations of painters benefited from both his technical skill and his uncompromising vision of the artist's role, and limitations, in shaping accepted aesthetics. As a painter who showed repeated willingness to turn away from popular success, Bischoff's ethics and integrity were remarkable in a competitive art world, especially during the turbulent '60s and '70s. He was elected to the National Academy of Design and received the Distinguished Teaching Award from the College Art Association as well as many other awards and recognitions. His work is now represented in most major collections and museums across America.
The exhibition and accompanying book were made possible with the generous support of The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc.; The Judith Rothschild Foundation; The Sandler Family Supporting Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; and The Neuberger Berman, LLC Fund at The New York Community Trust.
Orange Sweater, 1955
Oil on canvas