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1916-1991

Elmer Bischoff

By Richard Diebenkorn

I’ve never encountered an artist, or anyone for that matter, who was more completely “his own man” than Elmer Bischoff. His painting shows a great caring for Rembrandt and it also tells of an early passion for Edvard Munch, and there is an awareness of an unspecified Impressionist/Post-Impressionist mix, but these are fleeting connections which don’t mark or alter Elmer’s form or style and which is finally and triumphantly the work of Elmer Bischoff.

When I consider other contributions to Elmer’s work something else comes to mind—he was a talented musician and he played the trumpet very well. But more to the point than how well he played was the spirit of his playing. His primary mentor was Louis Armstrong. Elmer played trumpet in a jazz band made up of four or five of his colleagues at the San Francisco Art School. This Dixieland band came to be in great demand at school festivities and parties and it was easy to see that Elmer’s trumpet was actually becoming an activity that paralleled his painting in importance.

Now I can speak of not simply Elmer’s passion for his trumpet and for Dixieland but for the ethos of the early jazz trumpet, which was fiercely extrovertive, outgoing in an extreme, enthusiastic, buoyant, and ever moving. And the best jazz trumpets showed great generosity of spirit. Here then were the qualities Elmer’s trumpet must have—but also what his whole art must have. It should be easy to see then how a crossover from the music to his painting occurred and how the “trumpet attitude” became what all of Elmer’s art has.

It follows then that in the early seventies when Elmer’s figurative painting had lost its incentive, he could say finally that this was not the way his painting was to be; that it had to change to accommodate what the activity of painting had to be for him. So in spite of well over twenty years of dedicated representational painting for which he is justly renowned, concentrating for the most part with the human figure, Elmer Bischoff abruptly returned to abstract art—and with astonishing energy. In spite of this, some observers were critical: “He couldn’t stand the heat in the kitchen.” Others said he had returned belatedly to the proper camp where he belonged. A few knew that for Elmer there was no camp and that he was on course—that he was true to his ideals and that his integrity was absolutely intact.

Elmer continued to work in an abstract mode until his death this year. His work had great generosity of spirit, was extrovertive, outgoing, enthusiastic, buoyant and ever moving.

Read by Wolf Kahn at the Institute Dinner Meeting on November 5, 1991.

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