San Francisco

Elmer Bischoff

John Berggruen Gallery

Elmer Bischoff’s paintings are those of a virtuoso who indulges his love of performance without egocentricity and therefore without stunts. In this, Bischoff resembles Hans Hofmann although Bischoff ’s work can be subtler, and cumulatively mysterious as Hofmann’s never was. Bischoff trusts his paint to achieve an impassioned surge when worked up into interlocking scrubbings and flickers of color. Like Hofmann at his most orchestrally romantic, he shows innumerable transubstantiating things that color can do when handled in various ways.

In this show of 17 heretofore unexhibited paintings from Bischoff’s 20-year (1952–1972) figurative period, virtually all of his favored motifs were represented: from vistas of land and water to slices of sun-shocked high-ceilinged rooms peopled with insecurely propped figures. Though color is the main event, the figurative scheme provides the synthetic compositional hook. In Woman with Striped Skirt, 1958, a room, its furnishings, and a compact figure next to a window are hammered together so that the image breeds a right angled inertia relieved by flushes of daylight at the top and bottom. The figure here is fabulously decentralized; where it lodges, an otherwise buoyant surface admits a small sag. There is a well-known difficulty of knowing how to care about these figures. What one cares about finally is what the painter himself seems to have considered important, that this painting goes about its transcendent business, sparked rather than impeded by descriptive chat.

In the typical paintings of this period acrobatic tonalities drift and plummet against immense horizons. The paint goes right to the edge, often finding its finest moments there.

A variation on David Park’s Kids on Bikes, 1950–51, entitled In the Rain, 1955, is a marvel of willed brilliance. Two darkly bundled figures skirt the foreground while a third walks away with the weather in an orange coat effecting a singular harmonic splash.

In a similar arrangement entitled Boats, 1965, two masses—a pair of rowboats on the left and a bush on the right—impinge from the margins. In between, the motley shore builds to a misted horizon and, further up, to a heavily underscored sky. Here, the air seems chiseled, light a matter of vectors crisscrossed along some unseen structure. But the broadest light is that of the wide view in Girl on Porch, 1968, with its troweled-on burnt-caramel and mocha sunset. In this painting, pilings of deep, impacted color equal mood, and mood is feeling’s ornamental residue. The scene is an unabashed latter-day Symbolist’s reverie: all nostalgia for an infinitude of sentiment.

Bill Berkson