San Francisco/Berkeley

Elmer Bischoff

San Francisco Art Institute / University Art Museum, Berkeley

I don’t think West Coast art has ever really worried about ideas of the impersonal as New York artists have. Reviewing three decades of art (roughly 1945–75) can substantiate all my hidden prejudices about the subject of painting, culture, and traditionalism. The new work looks old (especially the good stuff), harking back to the days when painting reigned. That paint, craftily laid on in appropriately pleasing arrangements, was necessary to create honest-to-goodness art, Art.

Elmer Bischoff had two shows: new paintings at the Art Institute and ink drawings in Berkeley. I should write the whole affair off as “out of my range,” because these brand new fossils quietly insist that painting is at the service of personal expression (not of the mind); they are curious momentoes of a philosophy which, I believe, is completely untenable at this time. The drawings are grotesque, with a gutsiness one associates with the novice when he is uncertain if the rawness is the result of innocence or incompetence. The drawings portray the artist laboring over a nude woman in a drab studio. It is no surprise that Bischoff has taught at U.C. Berkeley for years; the drawings are in the worst academic struggling artist-in-atelier style. The paintings are better; they hark back to the past so that people might jabber on about Chagall and Kandinsky. Some techniques are used with honesty: thin washes of color laid over color, overall pastel palette, deftly laid-out areas and well done little Miroesque meanderings. But when the “innovations” creep in, watch out: gridlike structures look like an attempt to turn artists’ studio windows into Agnes Martin. These paintings are ambitious and “abstract”; that’s the worst problem. Bischoff was once a vital force in the late ’40s and early ’50s, but now we want to know who can rescue nonmodernist painting?

Jeff Perrone