Elmer Bischoff: 'I've taught all my life.'

I've taught so much. I've taught all my life, and the number of teaching jobs I've had which I haven't liked have been very few.  
- Elmer Bischoff, Interviewed by Suzanne B. Riess in 1990
Elmer Bischoff (1919-1991): Photo by Mimi Jacobs via WikiArt

Elmer Bischoff, whose work is on view at the George Adams Gallery in New York through August 14th, was a dedicated teacher throughout his life and career. After graduating with an M.A. from UC Berkeley in 1939, Bischoff got his first teaching job at the downtown art center of Sacramento High School, where he taught ceramics, crafts and jewelry making to "mostly housewives" for the next two years. By the time he retired in 1985, Bischoff had spent more than 38 years, with a few interruptions, teaching art, primarily at college level.

After a wartime stint as an Army intelligence officer, Bischoff joined a generation of postwar Bay Area artist/teachers who paid their bills by teaching and who felt very fortunate to have the work. "Without teaching positions, none of the Bay Area Figurative artists could have supported themselves or their families," writes Caroline Jones in her book Bay Area Figurative Art. For Bischoff, who had fathered five children with two different women by the mid-fifties, the income earned from teaching was essential.

In the fall of 1945 his friend Karl Kasten recommended Bischoff for a teaching position at San Francisco's California School of Fine Arts. It was there that he met other teaching artists -- including David Park and Hassel Smith -- and later became acquainted with a talented student named Richard Diebenkorn. It is worth pointing out that if it hadn't been for teaching, the tight circle of friendships that led to the Bay Area Figurative style would have never been formed. As David Park's biographer Nancy Boas comments:
Elmer Bischoff is known as a Bay Area Figurative artist. The three met at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in the mid-1940s, where they began their close personal and artistic friendship. They could be found weekly visiting each others' studios. Park and Bischoff played in the art school jazz band and Diebenkorn, a lover of classical music, went so far as to buy a trombone at a pawn shop in an effort to join the others.
In 1952 Bischoff resigned from the CSFA to protest the firing of his friend and colleague Hassel Smith and took a job driving a truck for Railway Express to make ends meet. A year later he landed a job teaching art at Yuba College from 1953 to 1956. Teaching work, although it didn't always pay well, was far preferable to most of the other work that was available to artists, especially in the early 1950s when Bischoff's friend David Park briefly worked arranging displays in liquor store windows and artist James Weeks painted billboards.

Bischoff, who in 1976 told Paul Karlstrom: "I'm still supporting myself by teaching," had only two one man shows before his first New York show at Staempfli Gallery in 1960, including a 1955 show at the Paul Kantor Gallery in Los Angeles from which nothing sold. In contrast, leading artists in New York benefitted from a booming art market. For example, Willem de Kooning's 1959 New York show sold out on the first day, bringing in about $150,000 (about $1.2 million dollars today, when adjusted for inflation).

Of course, de Kooning was a sensation, but many other New York artists sold well while California artists struggled. In this situation, decently paying teaching jobs were a rare and precious commodity. When it was rumored in 1955 that David Park had been offered $10,000 per year to teach at UC Berkeley, artist Nathan Oliveira -- who at the time was earning $2.50 per hour teaching art 18 hours per week -- thought that Park had been given "the opportunity of a lifetime." As it turns out, Park's actual starting annual salary was $5,300.00.

In late 1956 Bischoff returned to chair the Graduate Program at the California School of Fine Arts where he taught until 1963 when he joined the faculty of UC Berkeley. He taught at UCB for the next 22 years, winning the Distinguished Teaching Award of the College Art Association in 1983, and the Berkeley Citation by a vote of the Berkeley faculty in 1985. During his long teaching career, Bischoff was also a visiting artist at a number of schools including Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (1961) Yale University (1961) UCLA, The University of Notre Dame (1971), The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (1975) and Kent State (1976).

Girl Geting a Haircut, 1962, Oil on Canvas, 63 x 70 inches
Courtesy the Estate of Elmer Bischoff and the George Adams Gallery

Over the years Bischoff taught and encouraged hundreds, if not thousands of students including prominent artists -- Joan Brown was one -- and a few other notables including Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead who studied painting with him in late 1950s. Across time and situation, his teaching manner changed, but the description that Poet/Art Historian Bill Berkson offers is the most familiar:
Students who took his classes the University of California, Berkeley, recall Bischoff as "a twinkling Buddha" extolling the virtues of "vague" as opposed to a too-clear partiality of image: above the attainable, "stamped-out" product, he favored the more arduous, open-ended personal search.
Bischoff's friend and colleague Sidney Gordin (1918-1996) recalls a dedicated, devoted teacher:
He was a superb teacher--conscientious, responsible, articulate, full of ideas, and completely devoted to art and teaching. The students loved him for it. Although he often lectured to his class about art projects, setting up still-life arrangements, posing models, and discoursing on the basic problems of visual perception, process, composition, color, light, and technique, most of his teaching time and effort was spent giving individual critiques. To this end he set up his office as a viewing room, which he kept mostly bare to avoid distractions, so that only the individual student and his or her work was dealt with. He was a master at analyzing art and, being a great listener, he also encouraged dialogue. His relationship with students was extraordinary for the rapport that he usually achieved. His manner was relaxed and congenial. He was sensitive and gentle, but could also be very tough and critical when he thought it necessary. He always explained the reasoning behind his opinions with great clarity. He verbalized eloquently, and even poetically.
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Figure with White Lake, 1964, Oil on Canvas, 79 1/2 x 79 1/4 inches
Courtesy the Estate of Elmer Bischoff and the George Adams Gallery

Recollections from Elmer' Bischoff's Students

What follows are a collection of recollections and anecdotes from a small sampling of Elmer Bischoff's students, including one of my own.

Gordon Smith ( A Canadian Artist who studied with Bischoff in 1951)

He told us: "Paint without any pre-conceived ideas."

Adelie Landis Bischoff: Photo by John Seed

Adelie Landis Bischoff

(Adelie Bischoff, who married Elmer in 1962, was one of his students at the California School of Fine Arts, where she also studied with David Park.)

"He was one of best teachers I had. Questions of color and composition would eventually spill into a whole philosophical, ethical look at why you're painting. . . . He was very inspiring. Like wow, there's this world out there for me to discover."

Figure at Window with Boat, 1964, Oil on Canvas, 91 x 79 1/2 inches
Courtesy the Estate of Elmer Bischoff and the George Adams Gallery

Ellen Singer

I studied painting with Elmer Bischoff at UCB between 1966 and 1969.

He had incredible presence but there was stillness about him: he wouldn't interrupt people as they worked. He had a paternal quality and solidity. His large hands had a squareness and heft to them.

He would come around and quietly look at our work. There wasn't a lot of direct instruction, and his teaching was more about asking questions. He didn't talk to us about technique. He asked us "why" questions including why we wanted to portray something.

One morning he looked at a painting I was working on and simply said: "What did you have for breakfast this morning: cornflakes?" It wasn't unkind and in fact if was kind of funny. I had gotten a little lazy in my painting and that was just his way of saying it. His crits were strong but with kindness. He always found something to say that was true.

I fell in love with his art and still to this day I would rush to see the works of Diebenkorn, Park and Bischoff. An attachment was formed that made me a loyal fan of his work. His work really reflected who he was and how he lived. He was only who he was: he wasn't going to be anybody else.

Bay, 1971-72, Oil on Canvas, 80 x 92 inches
Courtesy the Estate of Elmer Bischoff and the George Adams Gallery

Jack E. McWhorter

I met Elmer Bischoff at Kent State University's Blossom Festival School in 1976. The Blossom art program provided for infusion of new ideas and attitudes through a concentration in studio experiences with major visiting artists. Students were encouraged to explore the interrelationship of the visual arts through informal contacts and lectures by visiting artists. Individual work was also critically evaluated.

The question of influences, especially in the formative stages of an artist's career is fairly an easy matter to sort out when you have an opportunity to meet artists such as Elmer Bischoff. Quite simply, listening to Mr. Bischoff's talks and critiques on painting and seeing his work blew my mind and changed my preconceptions about painting. He helped me to discover my own sensibility.

All the visiting artists had several paintings on exhibition. His paintings were not only interesting and affecting works to experience, they were aesthetically lovely, because Bischoff was enraptured with the beauty of his materials. His surfaces seemed so casual at first, but hearing his words and looking more carefully at his works I discovered his gorgeous juxtapositions of push-pull pigments and eye-popping textures and effects.

David Newman

I studied with Bischoff in the late 1970s and remember one thing he said very clearly. He said that we should "create work that we would be proud of five years from now." Note: Links to two recordings of 1978 Bischoff lectures taped by David Newman can be found at the end of this blog.

Bruce Klein

Like many others, I came to UC Berkeley in the seventies to study with Joan Brown and Elmer Bischoff. In the courses I took with him, Bischoff's emphasis was on keeping your painterly process open, on finding your painting's subject matter through the act of painting and on letting the painting lead. These ideas continue to characterize my practice.

Once during a portfolio review in his office, he picked out a painting I thought of little value. "That," he said, "was a gift. Put it up in your studio and look at it until you can see why I think it is beautiful." I was interested in painting the figure. He had picked an abstract piece that I hadn't even brought in for review, but had used to wrap some figure studies.

So I put it up. Looking at it every day for months, I finally began to see the piece's beauty and realize it had a certain kind of presence that I couldn't make happen, or force to happen. That experience ultimately led me to understand that, for me, my highest aesthetic level was reached not through conscious, meticulous control of media and of the creative processes but through simply starting out with a blank canvas and seeing what happens.

In my studio I've tacked up this Bischoff quote: "What is most desired in the final outcome is a condition of form which dissolves all tangible facts into intangibles of feeling." This serves as both a goal and reminder.

Girl Leaning Against Chair, c. 1965, Ink and charcoal on paper, 18 x 15 inches
Courtesy the Estate of Elmer Bischoff and the George Adams Gallery

Pia Stern

I first studied with Bischoff in 1975 as an undergraduate during my senior year at UCB. At that time, I was designing an independent major in city planning, and intended to go to law school to become a trial attorney.

The year before I had attended a private university in Aix-en-Provence, France (Cézanne's home). Up until then, I had always avoided art classes. However, a painting class was the only thing that fit into my schedule. The teachers of the class were American expatriates - their mentor was Leo Marchutz, originally a German Jew who had hidden in those very mountains around Aix during the Hitler years. These artists were all devotees of Cézanne. More than the act of painting, I just got completely hooked on their philosophical approach - their way of looking at art and life in general. Also, they seemed to think I "had something" as an artist, which certainly left an impact on me.

I went back to UCB and enrolled in an art class as a trial - just to make sure that I still wanted to go forward with my original academic plan. Elmer's was one of the first art classes I had. I took Life Drawing with him and realized that I knew nothing. He didn't say a lot; but people hung on his every word. At times he could be sharp and sarcastic, and his critiques could be painful - and deadly silent. We were all very intimidated, and very few students felt comfortable speaking during these critiques.

We would put all our drawings up on the wall, and he would work his way down the line, finding something to say about everyone's work but mine. It was pretty devastating. Elmer was not particularly patient and didn't take pains to explain things - it felt very much like a 'sink or swim' situation for me. Finally, one day I asked a student for their permission to watch them draw - a student whose work he consistently praised. It was then that the light finally turned on - it wasn't so much about drawing - it was about seeing! And in that moment, I saw in a completely new light; realizing that every object in the picture plane related to every other object - all the elements made up the 'whole'. I now understood what he was talking about - and from that day on, he began to not only comment on my work, but to praise my work. All of a sudden I existed.

The way Elmer talked about art was never in cosmetic terms, which was very unusual. He was able to tune into something deeper than just the "look" of a painting. He spoke more metaphorically, often using musical references, which somehow I totally got. We had a shared love of music - and I wonder if he didn't even have a bit of synesthesia - he was so incredibly attuned to visual rhythms. But his wasn't a language that worked for everyone, and when he spoke to some others about their works, they would often come up to me for a 'translation'. After I got my BA he became my mentor throughout graduate school, and I served as his Teaching Assistant.

He was very reserved as a teacher - and I think he held back a lot of his energy for his own work and his personal life. One never felt a surge of joyful energy when he entered the room - more like a surge of nervous energy. Students were a bit in awe of Elmer and held him in high esteem, though I don't think he was aware of this. He wasn't the perfect teacher for all - but he certainly was for me - and I feel very lucky to have worked with him. Ultimately, because he saw something about my potential as an artist, his influence became life and path-changing.

John Seed

 I took a seminar from Bischoff in 1981 during my graduate work at UCB. Once I showed him a figure drawing of a nude female model that I was very proud of. He looked it over soberly and said to me "What about all of the blank paper? It's not a good drawing until you have given the figure an environment that she can live in." I remember realizing then that Bischoff wasn't interested in isolated forms: he was interested in how everything worked together to form a whole.

Kyung Sun Cho

I worked with Elmer Bischoff between 1982-1985, before he retired in 1985. I was an undergraduate then, I enrolled in his figure painting/drawing courses. He conducted studio work sessions during the week, but the critiques were scheduled for Saturdays, they were joint critiques with graduates and undergraduates together: nobody missed them. I enjoyed his critiques enormously; he was honest but gentle. I have fond memories of him walking in the classroom holding his coffee mug and wearing his apron, ready to go!

In addition to Saturday critiques, I really appreciated the one to one time with him. He would conduct individual discussions with each student regarding his/her making. He took the time to examine topics concerning each student's work and level; he thoughtfully recommended readings and artists accordingly. He often brought his own books to share them with me, very thoughtful. He was kind and generous man. He was a dedicated teacher.

Casey Chalem

 When I was a student at UC Berkeley in the mid-1980s I showed him a small still life of an apple and he told me "It looks like your grandmother did that." The comment made me cry, but he was probably right.

Steve Sas Schwartz

My memories of Elmer include his kindness, keen visual perceptions and a chronic curiosity.

He was incredibly supportive of me while studying with him as both an undergrad and a graduate student and seemed fascinated by my deep immersion in my work and how I would be cranking out these substantive abstracts like channeling some greater force. He once asked: "How do you keep up this intensity, don't you ever stumble?" and I said "No!" but then "Yes of course, but I just put my head down and plow right through." Elmer just cracked up.

Once when i was renting Bob Yarber's studio in this really dark zone by the Oakland industrial train station Elmer came riding up to my door on a giant Harley wearing a black leather jacket, boots, the whole deal. That was funny and surprising as I had never that aspect of his personality. From then on I always called him Elvis and he would always laugh his hearty chuckle.

Seated Nude, 1965, Oil crayon and ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches
Courtesy the Estate of Elmer Bischoff and the George Adams Gallery

Eve Aschheim

I studied with Elmer through 1984. He had unstinting energy and devotion to his classes, most of all to painting. Elmer just lit up when he saw painting; he lived in painting. He spent hours making setups for the model. He was always calm and engaged. During class critiques he would stare at a work for what seemed to be a long time, perhaps four minutes, and then offer insightful observations and thoughts, incisive critique, never predictable.

Elmer said things like: "It seems that the edges of the page are imposing themselves on the space inside of it, and determining too much of what happens within it." He talked a lot about the relationship of the figure to its environment, one of his chief preoccupations. He thought that the figure should be painted in as loose and intuitive way as the rest of the painting. He had a very fluid and subtle understanding of the relationship between drawing, painting, printmaking and cartooning.

On the last day of the semester of his drawing classes, Elmer would always give a slide show, with a surprising range of works, including prints! He showed Max Beckman's drypoint Self-Portrait (1914) and commented on the razor-sharp jagged strokes giving it a sense of tension. He showed Rembrandt's "unfinished" print The Artist Drawing from the Model (1648 or later), which he mused over, but considered to be essentially finished, a radical view. He also loved Krazy Kat!

When I was working in school independently of his classes, I would knock on his office door, and he always made time to critique my work, as if it were a welcome interruption. He was generous, but reserved and formal. One never had the feeling that teaching was a chore for him or that he wanted to be somewhere else, rather that through teaching he could communicate something of his inner life. 

Years later, I ran into Bischoff at the at the Anselm Kiefer exhibition (1988) at MOCA, Los Angeles. He was happy to see me and extremely enthusiastic about the show: he gestured at the brushstrokes and the thick paint application, as we discussed individual works. I think he commented favorably about the incorporation of large woodblock printing. He was impressed by the massiveness and sheer energy of the work. I remember bring impressed at how open he was to the work, not polemical or defensive. We talked about the work, and then as soon as we stopped looking Elmer just said: "Bye, see you again soon!" He didn't want to talk beyond that.


Recorded critique session by Elmer Bischoff: January 21, 1978

Elmer Bischoff: Slide Talk on his Work, March 9, 1978

Elmer Bischoff Remembers "The Breakfast Club" (video)

Elmer Bischoff: Working from Life and Figurative Paintings (concurrent exhibitions)
Through August 14, 2015
The George Adams Gallery
525-531 West 26th Street First Floor
New York, NY 10001