Elmer Bischoff was an instrumental figure in the shaping of the California Bay Area figurative art movement that emerged in the early 1950s. Born in Berkeley, California in 1916, he studied art at the University of California, Berkeley, from which he received his Master of Arts degree in 1939. Stationed in England during World War II, Bischoff returned to California in 1945 and began painting with an energy that reflected the forward momentum of the post-war culture. His early works are most closely identified with the abstract expressionist movement that had become a major stylistic phenomenon on the East coast. Like the Abstract Expressionists he admired—de Kooning, Rothko—Bischoff broke away from traditional representation to focus on expressive abstract images dependent on vigorous brush strokes and intense colors.
Bischoff influenced the art world not just in his art, but through his teaching. Beginning in the 1950s he taught at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) with Richard Diebenkorn and David Park who were also associated with the California Bay Area figurative art movement. Together these artists shaped a new generation of West coast artists using the free brushwork and thickly painted surfaces of abstract expressionism to create ambiguous images featuring one or two loosely described figures. In the 1960s, Bischoff accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley where he remained until his retirement in 1985.
Shortly after his return to Berkeley, Bischoff began to move back to the fully abstract images reminiscent of his earlier work. The gestural abstraction of these mature works is likened by the artist to “leaving a church and entering a gymnasium.” Free floating abstract forms move through the composition, energized by loose, fluid brush strokes reminiscent of the work of abstract artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró. Bischoff continued to paint in this manner until his death in 1991.