Courageous Vision

Elmer Bischoff wasn't afraid to shine -- or to let a painting fail

Elmer Bischoff is something of a local treasure, having spent all but three years of his long life (1916-1991) firmly planted in the Bay Area. “Grand Lyricist: The Art of Elmer Bischoff,” a retrospective exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California, is a befitting celebration for a beloved hometown hero whose praises are rarely sung elsewhere. It's a truly vital show, by which I mean that it overflows with the rapture and the wretchedness of a life spent at the easel.

Though he created a few achingly beautiful works, Bischoff was an uneven painter, and a show of this magnitude must by necessity include a substantial number of mediocre paintings. Many of his canvases feel stagnant, heavy, and awkwardly composed. What is ultimately conveyed by the exhibition, though, is the richness of Bischoff's commitment to his own artistic process. Rather than settling for an easy harmony of color and form, he reached for something edgier and more alive. While he often fell flat on his face, his desire to push beyond convention remained irrepressible.

In the late 1950s Bischoff, along with cohorts David Park and Richard Diebenkorn, abandoned the enormously popular style of Abstract Expressionism to pioneer what became known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Though it's hard to believe that the human figure ever really went out of style (like basic black, it's a perennial favorite), the trio found themselves instantly controversial, and therefore quite successful.

I suspect, though, that Bischoff remained an Abstract Expressionist at heart long after he renounced the cult of Pollock. He brought to his representational paintings the full-body engagement and zealous strokes of his AbEx training. Though Bischoff's pieces are figurative, they are rarely narrative; he didn't want to tell us a story, but to stir up something more complex and personal. He conveyed meaning not through the actions or expressions of the people he portrayed, but through his use of color, form, and brushwork.

Interior With Two Figures, for instance, powerfully evokes a particular breed of loneliness — the emotional distance that can exist between two people despite nearly constant physical proximity. The image depicts a man and a woman seated opposite one another, each shrinking into the massive forms of their respective sofas. Subtle touches of blue rim the woman's hair and the man's ear, a double pulse of cold color against a room ablaze with warm reds and yellows. Their faces are obscured, giving us no indication of emotion, but these melancholy traces of blue draw the viewer's eye from one figure to the other, suggesting simultaneously the ties that bind them together and the chill that grows between them.

The paint itself was clearly Bischoff's passion, and his visceral connection with it is evident. He slathered it on in lush, wet, broad strokes, letting his colors run together indecorously. Up close, the effect is similar to standing a few inches from Monet's Waterlilies: streaks of color bearing no discernible relationship to one another. Only when you step back a considerable distance do the painting's forms become solid. I snuck up on the paintings from the side, a vantage point from which the shapes crystallize just enough to let you focus on Bischoff's true genius — his use of color.

Have you ever wanted to walk up to a painting, stick out your tongue, and lick the paint right off? This is how luscious Bischoff's colors are. He favored a palette of muddy browns and grays coupled with luminous shades of red, orange, and green. In the Rain is an early painting that uses such juxtapositions to great effect. It's a sidewalk scene, closely cropped to suggest the jostle of elbows and umbrellas on a drizzly city day. From the gloom emerges a moment of pure radiance — molten, sunlit-orange, echoed across the shimmering wetness of the street.

Despite the commercial success it brought him, Bischoff's signature figurative style no longer challenged him by the early 1980s, at which point he abandoned it entirely. He began to paint large-scale, abstract canvases that call to mind the dreamy, floating-object styles of Kandinsky and Chagall. I find these late works limp and insubstantial, populated by whimsical icons that express very little. The paint is thin and muted, with none of the energy of Bischoff's earlier works. Nevertheless, these paintings do convey a breezy sort of freedom, as though Bischoff had finally learned to loosen up and have some fun.

Above all else, Bischoff was a courageous painter, true to his own vision throughout. His passion and his struggle suffuse every painting in the show, whether great or average. He didn't shy away from a challenge, wasn't afraid to let a painting fail. Though he may never achieve the sort of canonical acclaim that this exhibition seems to court, he's a worthy patron saint for the countless dedicated artists who call the Bay Area home.

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