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Elmer Bischoff, The Ocean, 1953.


Elmer Bischoff, ‘The Ocean,’ 1953. Oil on canvas, 57 3/4 x 57 3/4 inches.

Elmer Bischoff was born and raised in Oakland, California and he lived his entire life in the Bay Area. Its landscape is an inescapable force in his paintings, however, he rarely specified any particular location, instead painting scenes “concocted up out of memory and imagination.” 


Bischoff made the transition from Abstract Expressionism to figurative painting in 1952, pioneering what became known at the Bay Area Figurative style. During this period, landscapes - with or without people present - were a frequent subject, balancing the lyricism of his abstractions with the sensuality of his figure paintings. Despite being surrounded by the natural beauty of Northern California, Bischoff rarely worked from life, and if so, only drew. He preferred to paint in the studio, perhaps contributing to the emotive, atmospheric quality of his work, and never from photos, which he felt had “[nothing] to do with with the kind of language I was using for the water, rocks, sky…" Particularly in his later figurative work, Bischoff tended toward a type of visionary painting in the manner of Pinkham Ryder, and though he always professed to be uninterested in conveying a mood, these are his most evocative works, showing the vulnerability of man against the raw power of nature.


In a 1982 lecture, Bischoff explained “None of [my] paintings, I should mention, are done from observation... they had to be inventions; composite of invention and memory.” Anecdotally, he continued, “I would go into the ocean, Funston Beach perhaps, and make drawings of the rocks and the ocean, and come back and concoct a [painting] with the ocean turning out to be very ominous. I guess it’s ominous because I really don’t like the ocean, it frightens me, and if it doesn’t frighten me it bores me, depending on my mood it’s either one or the other, but somehow I like to paint it…”


See more of Bischoff's paintings and drawings.