PRINT March 1986

Flashes of Understatement

IN 1952, FOLLOWING HIS FRIEND David Park’s sudden reversion from abstraction to imagery, Elmer Bischoff began painting figures and landscapes in a manner adapted from Abstract Expressionism. Bischoff’s subsequent work in this vein, along with Park’s and Richard Diebenkorn’s, earned the three of them their almost legendary status as founders of socalled Bay Area Figuration, the West Coast’s first important indigenous contribution to modern American art. It is a pleasant surprise to discover, in the modest retrospective of Bischoff’s work now traveling1, how timely, how contemporary, his best paintings of the ’50s and ’60s look today. In fact, they look both timely and dated—dated, not in the pejorative sense of the word, but simply because they are readily recognizable as examples of a superseded style, and perhaps also because they came out of California, a region that the evolutionary currents of contemporary art have seemed often to bypass; but timely, in the sense that they are works in which we can see how the artist’s education compensated for his distance from New York, the artworld capital. How that was possible is something we need to understand now, or at least to ponder. For while New York is still nominally the capital of contemporary art, the worldwide rise of an ongoing spectacle of mediated images of life has in recent years provincialized every art center no matter how large.

In response to this situation, artists today have brought painting to a kind of crisis of sophistication, one evidenced by the number of people who practice painting today as a form of conceptual art, whether or not they acknowledge or even realize that they are doing so. Many artists work and speak as if it were impossible to “mean” painting anymore except as a code for disaffection, whet her from the rules of Modernism, as they developed and grew constricting, or from the current culture of advertising, entertainment, and technology. In the view of these artists, to lose oneself in the activity of painting is to appear nostalgic or just plain out of it, unconscious of art history and its implications. However, there are also painters who have emerged in the past decade or so who are not solely conceptual. They can be roughly divided into two camps. There are some who believe that paintings have credibility only if they acknowledge their inevitable subjection to the spectacular apparatus of commercial and bureaucratic power. Such painters display their ingenuity in the stylistic codes they devise to make us mindful of the media through which their works pass. And another approach involves artists who appear to believe that through sheer force of conviction, or ardor of execution, their painting will make a kind of visceral sense to anyone seeing it firsthand that no mediated experience can approximate. The latter group basically trust sensuous immediacy to make a painting convincing, while the former believe that the phenomenon of the spectacle has subliminally altered the very grain of unmediated reality, necessarily undermining the capacity of sensuousness in painting to function as a ground for the meaning and value we hope to find in art.

In Bischoff’s work we see a third, totally different way of reckoning with paint. His paintings of the ’50s and ’60s are innocent of the use of esthetics as a shorthand for ideology or career strategy, but they also avoid a dependence on the visceral power of paint for their impact. These are educated works; what is surprising about them technically is the way Bischoff sustained an intense painterly attack, which might well be called “expressionistic,” without projecting that intensity willy-nilly into his images. This stylistic tact, a feel for the apt relation between the sensuous pitch of the object and the emotional pitch of the image, is what sets him apart from other so-called expressionist painters, past and present.

Seascape, 1967, is a good example of this sensitivity in action. It describes a sailboat on roiling blueblack seas under a murky but fiery sunset. Almost nothing could be more banal as a pictorial pretext, yet as a painting the finished work is almost shockingly convincing. The image is almost as dense with allusion as with facture, bringing to mind such artists as J. M. W Turner, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Winslow Homer, and Clyfford Still. None of these references appears contrived, however; they seem simply to have emerged in the process of painting by graces of the artist’s learned hand. At first, the sailboat looks like a defensive afterthought intended to bring the canvas back from the brink of abstraction, but it actually functions to draw the eye and imagination into the feeling of oceanic menace that is the painting’s essence. What keeps Seascape from being merely picturesque is Bischoff’s handling of paint. With a direct, generous touch, he has allowed the medium’s dumb materiality to threaten but not swamp the image at almost every point. This magmatic paint quality rhymes formally with the picture’s evocation of the sea’s terrors.

The theme that surfaces here, and echoes throughout Bischoff’s figurative paintings, is a tormented love of physical reality, expressed in the fluctuating relations of paint and image. In a completely different way, the same theme emerges from Girl with Towel, 1960. Here the “girl,” isolated on a beach under blistering sun light, has the exposed, defenseless air that the women have in some of Edgar Degas’ paintings and pastels. At first she seems simply to be caught at a graceless moment in the act of picking up a towel. If one ponders her pose, however, she takes on the mien of someone who has just been gripped by a Sartrean nausea at the groundlessness of her own being—an idea inherently compelling to the viewer of the painting, who cannot but see her as a figment. Yet this psychological cast to the picture is so understated as to make one wonder whether Bischoff intended it consciously. This is what makes it convincing. One can set it aside and see the image revert to that of an almost prosaic figure in a landscape; once the canvas has received the psychological reading, however, it undergoes a crucial change of aspect: the heady energy of Bischoff’s paint-handling now seems to declare a passionate ambivalence toward matter itself as the element of our common existence.

The troubling aspect of the retrospective, the question it raises but does not answer, is why Bischoff abandoned imagery in the early ’70s, when so many younger artists were about to take it up. His own explanation is that the figurative works simply ceased to speak to him at a certain point, as his early abstract work had done twenty years earlier. But the recent abstract work is disappointing, and it is not easy to say why. One reason is that the ringingly successful older images, such as Seascape, Breakers, 1967, Bay, 1960, Yellow Sky, 1967, and Head, 1962, have such abstract strength of surface design and facture as to make the strictly abstract canvases look forced.

It may be an exaggeration to call Bischoff’s recent pictures “strictly abstract.” He appears to bury fragments of imagery in them, as if trying to keep the paintings from going figurative on him. Too often he ends up with a pictorial minestrone of discarded signifiers. Compositionally the abstractions are very energetic, but that energy dissipates because Bischoff seems unsure where he wants to take it. And he tends to lean too much on white to resolve problems of emphasis and finish. Furthermore, the move from oil to acrylic, which coincided with his return to abstraction, has sapped some of the sensuous authority of his work. It is almost as if Bischoff has caught from younger, lesser artists, as one catches a cold, the going doubt about whether it is possible to paint improvisationally now and mean it. Yet the retrospective reveals a painter of such unpretentious assurance that you come away from it confident that he will turn to advantage the signs of struggle, and of restless facility, that currently shadow his art.

Kenneth Baker is the senior art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle and a contributing editor of Artforum.



l. “Elmer Bischoff 1947–1985” began its run at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it closed in early February. It will appear at the Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina, from July 8 to August 31; at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. from September 20 to November 2; and finally at the Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, California, from November 20 to January 4, 1987. The show was organized by Laguna Art Museum.