“Creative Seeing” in the Paintings of Elmer Bischoff and Tom Burckhardt

I admit that I was skeptical when I received the announcement by e-mail of the exhibition Elmer Bischoff/Tom Burckhardt: a dialogue, at the George Adams Gallery (February 3 – March 19, 2022). What does the work of a Bay Area painter who died in 1992 have to do with a New York artist who began exhibiting in 1991? Although I have written about both artists before, paying particular attention to Bischoff’s figurative paintings and Burckhardt’s various bodies of work, I was skeptical of the substance of a dialogue based on their abstract paintings. It wasn’t until I visited the exhibition that I saw that pairing made sense and, more importantly, that the artists were challenging assumptions and conventions about abstraction and the way we look at it. apprehend. It is moreover their questioning about abstraction, which they arrived at by very different paths, which makes them a more fruitful pair than many of those I have seen in recent years, which have largely consisted of putting proximity to the signature works of well-known figures who occupy a minor and unassailable niche in the history of art.

The first and most obvious difference between the works in the exhibition is size. Made in acrylic, which Bischoff switched to after years of oil work, his seven paintings range between 79 1/4 by 84 1/2 inches and 96 3/4 by 80 inches. They are classic post-war, post-easel abstract paintings, although the similarity to what his peers, particularly his friends Richard Diebenkorn and Frank Lobdell, ended there.

Burckhardt’s 17 oil paintings are all 20 inches by 16 inches. The artist cut into the frames, waving the edges, before stretching the linen over them. By this gesture, Burckhardt defies and thumbs his nose at Donald Judd’s statement in his well-known essay “Specific Objects”:

The main flaw of the painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole form; it determines and limits the arrangement of everything that is on it or inside.

Tom Burckhardt, “Monster Shame” (2021), oil on linen, 20 x 16 inches (© Tom Burckhardt, courtesy the artist and George Adams Gallery, New York. Photo by George Adams Gallery)

Burckhardt’s paintings are not actually rectangles, or any known geometric shape; they are not shaped canvases, nor eccentric formats. Their shape doesn’t determine what’s inside: while the edges are wavy, the stripes that make up large areas of the painting are straight, never acknowledging the edge.

Burckhardt’s refusal to conform to what is practically a given is one of the characteristics of his approach to painting. This seems to me to be the fundamental link between Bischoff and Burckhardt, who are artists of different generations working in different mediums. Rather than trying to insert themselves into the story or extend it, they want to break free from it, even though they know that might be impossible to achieve with paint on canvas or linen. A deep and thoughtful awareness of this dilemma inspired both artists to pursue interesting and unlikely directions.

If there’s one reason to be interested in Bischoff’s abstract paintings, which he began to produce in 1964, it’s that they are unlike anyone else and, if you know his art, they mark a radical break with his earlier works. A second reason is that, unlike most abstractions by his peers, these paintings are very slow to reveal themselves, in part because they are based on principles that were not widely accepted by other artists. The first principle that Bischoff overturned was readability and his own penchant for it. I think that’s one of the reasons he chose to work in acrylic. He wanted a quick-drying paint that he could cover without necessarily trying to hide what he was doing. He was a process painter steeped in the idea that he could start painting directly on canvas. The second thing he rejected was the use of the grid or any other means to divide the canvas into large adjoining areas in which something could be painted or a color or tint applied.

Elmer Bischoff, “No. 27” (1977), acrylic on canvas, 79 1/4 x 84 1/2 inches (© The Estate of Elmer Bischoff, courtesy the Estate of Elmer Bischoff and George Adams Gallery, New York. Photo by M Lee Fatheree)

In a slide show he gave at the University of California, the Matrix Gallery Bischoff in Berkeley offered two important answers to questions from the public:

[In] summer ’72 […] I found myself returning to non-figurative painting, again for reasons very similar to the move from abstract expressionism to figurative painting: dissatisfaction with the way things were going. The way things were going was like the lights were gradually going out, and I needed a change.

Later he says:

Action becomes very important here, and while color and light were the primary means I used to put things together – I guess you could say “arrange” – my figurative paintings, the means here are a bit more complex and perhaps subtle. I’ve had chains of events, continuities, pushes, directions, actions and counter-actions, and I like to think about […] all the forces in the table as being really determined by the small elements. I consider them to be democratic, that is to say […].

One of the remarkable things about Bischoff’s abstract paintings, as seen in those in the exhibition, is their difference. The title of each table is a number. Together they form a visual diary. Each is made up of ‘chains of events’, or what he called ‘characters’ in his talk, which seem both connected and independent of the other ‘characters’. In all the paintings, he uses white or a light color to paint what he thinks does not work or no longer works.

Tom Burckhardt, “Salvo” (2022), oil on linen, 20 x 16 inches (© Tom Burckhardt, courtesy the artist and George Adams Gallery, New York. Photo by George Adams Gallery)

Basically, Bischoff returned to that time when, influenced by abstract expressionism, he began to paint directly on a blank canvas with the intention of focusing on “small elements” that were never subsumed by a larger structure. . At the same time, he does not want to repeat elements and suggest a pattern. In “No. 31” (1978) we see different structures and forms, types of marks, erasures, ghostly shapes and lines. Areas and parts connect but do not add up to something more If, as Judd asserts, a work only has to be “interesting,” Bischoff easily crosses that threshold.

In creating a work that neither merges into an integral composition nor dissipates into a chaotic jumble, Bischoff had to walk a fine line. The paintings are notable for maintaining a lively tension between the myriad parts and our desire for an overarching structure, while looking like nothing else, which is always true of them. What makes these paintings unique is that, rejecting style and other known solutions, Bischoff worked from the mid-1970s until the end of his life without a safety net.

Questions of organization and readability are among Burckhardt’s constant concerns. Unlike Bischoff, however, Burckhardt began his career after the painting became a hotly contested site that many claimed had been exhausted.

Elmer Bischoff, “No. 44” (1979), acrylic on canvas, 84 x 80 inches (© The Estate of Elmer Bischoff, courtesy the Estate of Elmer Bischoff and George Adams Gallery, New York. Photo by M Lee Fatheree)

In addition to working on surfaces with wobbly edges, Burckhardt has long been interested in pareidoliaor the way the imagination reshapes abstract images into something familiar (e.g., a face, a bat, or a gondola). This is the guiding principle of Rorschach inkblot testing. If the goal of art is to achieve a state of pure opticality, Burckhardt rejects it in favor of an impure state of vision in which the viewer is invited to complete the picture. The 17 paintings in the exhibition are portraits whose abstract elements and shapes suggest that we are looking at a head from the front or sideways. Burckhardt adds a dose of humor to the situation, such as when he titles one of the paintings “You should see the other guy”. Obviously, the artist did not embrace the belief that abstract art should be serious.

Like Bischoff, Burckhardt is a process painter in these works, and the paintings are a record of decisions. Paint application varies from thin washes and smears to semi-transparent areas and solid graphic lines. Each work seems carried by a restricted palette, which distinguishes it from its compatriots. His vocabulary consists of graphic lines and different geometric shapes with straight and curved edges. He seems to have absorbed a lot from Paul Klee, which he made his own.

Each painting invites the viewer to play a game of discovery of the head in the composition. In many, the outlines of the general form evoke a head in a way that Peter Saul, Jim Nutt or Alexej von Jawlensky might have done in his mystical period. And yet, even as these associations and others come to mind, the paintings take over and we begin to see ourselves seeing something new, a portrait that is both a mirror and an opaque representation. Once the head is uncovered, should we try to make connections between what we see and what we know about the human head, which would make the painting a literal representation? Or do we take pleasure in seeing the dance between representation and abstraction, description and sign, that Burckhardt skillfully and knowingly set in motion? Not only did he reject Judd’s view of painting as a rectangle, he also overturned the idea of ​​opticality associated with formalism. The reasons for this are not purely aesthetic.

Tom Burckhardt, “Can’t Take a Compliment” (2021), oil on linen, 20 x 16 inches (© Tom Burckhardt, courtesy the artist and George Adams Gallery, New York. Photo by George Adams Gallery)

Made during the pandemic, which has resulted in long periods of isolation, these portraits evoke a state of loneliness, vulnerability, confusion and opacity. By inviting us to see ourselves in them, Burckhardt creates a space for self-reflection in which we can consider the many different states of loneliness and isolation that we inevitably inhabit in our lives. What emotional states do we recognize in these works, and why? It is this depth of feeling and questioning, and this concomitant state of self-awareness, that Burckhardt is able to open up with a light and graceful touch that makes these pieces groundbreaking. By specifying from the outset that these are portraits, he has found a way to bring acting and improvisation to a new, intense and unexpected rhythm.

Elmer Bischoff/Tom Burckhardt: a dialogue continues at the George Adams Gallery (38 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through March 19.

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