To begin 2018, the George Adams Gallery will mount an exhibition of early paintings by Elmer Bischoff (1916-1991), tracing his development from the mid-1940s, to the years preceding his transition to figurative painting in 1952. In line with the rapid evolution of the art scene in post-war San Francisco, Bischoff’s evolution from surrealist imagery and biomorphic abstraction to the heavy, gestural abstraction reflects the various influences and personalities shaping the Bay Area artistic identity. Crucially, these years, 1946-50, align with Bischoff’s first stint teaching at California School of Fine Arts and further reinforce the major influence the school and its community had on the painting in the region.
As with many of his colleagues, Bischoff served in WWII and returned to art and teaching at CSFA in ’46; among those on staff at the time were David Park, Hassel Smith and Clyfford Still. Artists in the region had been moving away from the European-style cubist mode that was prevalent, particularly in reaction to recent paintings by Pollock and Rothko, which used primitive and surreal abstract imagery. Bischoff embraced this new approach to painting, incorporating his interest in metaphysical thought and ancient art. While the first of these paintings in late ’46 are airy and brushy in the vein of Matta or Gorky, over the first half of ’47 this ethereal quality was quickly discarded in favor of a more grounded, geometrically abstract style. Titles such as Objects Above and Below Horizon and Rococo Figures portend the paintings by his students of a decade later, with their banalities: ‘things’ and ‘objects’ set in incoherent spaces. Bischoff’s progression from ornate to geometric over the course of ‘47 possibility relates to the outsized influence of Clyfford Still at the time—both in personality and the radical nature of his painting. Despite many of his colleagues echoing his call to reject ‘surrealist theology’ and, more generally, establishing rules in painting, friction existed between Still and his colleagues, and their conflicting ideologies are apparent in their paintings.
Around this time, Bischoff began working closely with Park, Smith and Richard Diebenkorn, a former student of Park’s. Their camaraderie and democratic approach to painting was at odds with Still’s cult of personality and is evident in their stylistic similarities and shared vocabularies. Their paint became thicker, freer, more gestural and less structured, eschewing the figurative aspect in favor of blocks of color and calligraphic lines. In Object with Black (1948), Bischoff had reached a synthesis of the automatism of surrealism, the heavy, ugly paintwork of Still and the new lyrical gesture he was developing along with his contemporaries. By the fall of ’48, a headline-making exhibition of these new paintings by Bischoff, Park and Smith was lauded in ArtNews as “the most complete release from restraints of all kinds” and reflected Bischoff’s own preference to ‘work with abundance.’
Ironically, for all the radical appearance of the work, within a matter of years it had become a dominant mode of painting in San Francisco, perhaps pushing its progenitors back towards figuration, on Park’s lead. Yet for all the shock of the shift in subject, very little changed in the actual style of painting that was called ‘Bay Area Figurative.’ In many respects it was a natural, albeit dramatic, resolution to the competing interests and motivations of the time.