Elmer Bischoff, "No. 8" (1974), acrylic on canvas, 96 3/4 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)

I admit I was doubtful when I first got the email announcement for the exhibition Elmer Bischoff/Tom Burckhardt: A Dialogue, at George Adams Gallery (February 3 – March 19, 2022). What does the work of a Bay Area painter who died in 1991 have to do with a New York artist who began exhibiting in 1991? Although I had written about both artists before, with particular attention paid to Bischoff’s figurative paintings and different bodies of work by Burckhardt, I was skeptical about the substance of a dialogue based on their abstract paintings. It was only after visiting the exhibition that I saw that the pairing made sense and, more importantly, that the artists questioned assumptions and conventions regarding abstraction and how we apprehend it. In fact, their questioning of abstraction, which they arrived at by very different paths, is what makes this a more fruitful pairing than many of those I have seen in the last few years, which have largely consisted of placing in close proximity signature works by well-known figures that occupy a minor, unassailable niche in art history. 

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

Burckhardt’s 17 oil paintings are all 20 by 16 inches. The artist has cut into the stretchers, causing the edges to become wavy, before stretching the linen over them. With this gesture, Burckhardt challenges, and thumbs his nose at, Donald Judd’s declaration in his well-known essay “Specific Objects”: 

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

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, nor are they any known geometric shape; they are not shaped canvases, and not eccentric in format. Their shape does not determine what is inside: while the edges are wavy, stripes that make up large areas of the paining are straight, never acknowledging the edge. 

Burckhardt’s refusal to conform to what is practically a given is one of the hallmarks of his approach to painting. This seems to me the basic bond between Bischoff and Burckhardt, who are artists of different generations working in different milieus. Rather than trying to fit into or extend history, they want to shake themselves free of it, even as they know this might be impossible to attain with paint on canvas or linen. A deep and considered awareness of that dilemma has inspired both artists to pursue interesting and unlikely directions. 

If there is one reason to start looking at Bischoff’s abstract paintings, which he began making in 1974, it is because they don’t look like anyone else’s and, if you know his art, they mark a radical break with his previous work. A second reason is that, in contrast with most abstraction by his peers, these paintings are very slow to reveal themselves, partly because they are based on principles that were not widely accepted by other artists. The first principle Bischoff subverted was legibility, and his own inclination toward it. I think that is one reason he chose to work in acrylic. He wanted a quick-drying paint that he could cover over without necessarily trying to hide what he was up to. He was a process painter rooted in the idea that he could begin painting directly on the canvas. The second thing he rejected was the use of the grid or any other means to divide the canvas into large, abutting areas in which something could be painted or a color or hue 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 talk that he gave at the University of California, Berkeley’s Matrix Gallery Bischoff offered two significant responses to questions from the audience:

[In] the summer of ’72 […] I found myself returning to nonrepresentational painting, again for very similar reasons to the switch from Abstract Expressionism to figurative painting: dissatisfaction with the way things were going. The way things were going was as though the lights were gradually being turned down, and I needed to change.

Later, he says:

Action becomes very important here, and if color and light were the main means I used to get things together — I guess you could say “organize” — my figurative paintings, the means here are a bit more complex and perhaps subtle. I had chains of events, continuity, thrusts, directions, actions and counteractions, and I like to think of […] all the forces in the painting as really being determined by the small elements. I think of them as being democratic, in other words […]. 

One of the remarkable things about Bischoff’s abstract paintings, as evidenced by those in the exhibition, is how different they are from each other. The title of each painting is a number. Together, they form a visual diary. Each one is made of “chains of events,” or what he called “characters” in his talk, which seem both connected to and independent from other “characters.” In all of the paintings he uses white or a light color to paint over what he feels does not 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 has gone back to that moment when, influenced by Abstract Expressionism, he began painting directly on a blank canvas with the intention of focusing on “small elements” that never become subsumed by a larger structure. At the same time, he does not want to repeat the elements and suggest a pattern. In “No. 31” (1978), we see different structures and forms, kinds of mark making, erasures, ghostly shapes, and lines. Areas and parts connect but don’t add up to something larger. If, as Judd states, a work has only to be “interesting,” Bischoff easily goes beyond this threshold. 

By making a work that neither coalesces into an all-over composition nor dissipates into a chaotic jumble, Bischoff had to walk a fine line. The paintings are remarkable for maintaining an animated tension between the myriad parts and our desire for an overarching structure, while looking like nothing else being done, something that is still true of them. What makes these paintings unique is that, by rejecting style and other known solutions, Bischoff worked from the mid-1970s until the end of his life without a safety net. 

The issues of organization and legibility have been among Burckhardt’s ongoing preoccupations. In contrast to Bischoff, however, Burckhardt began his career after painting had become a highly 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)

Along with working on surfaces that have wavering edges, Burckhardt has had a longstanding interest in pareidolia, or the way the imagination reshapes abstract images into something familiar (for instance, a face, bat, or gondola). This is the guiding principle of Rorschach ink blot tests. If the goal of art is to attain a state of pure opticality, Burckhardt rejects that in favor of an impure state of seeing in which the viewer is invited to complete the picture. The exhibition’s 17 paintings are portraits in which the abstract elements and forms suggest that we are looking at a head either frontally or at an angle. Burckhardt adds a dose of humor into the situation, as when he titles one of the paintings “You Should See the Other Guy.” Clearly, the artist did not embrace the belief that abstract art had to be serious. 

Like Bischoff, Burckhardt is a process painter in these works, and the paintings are a record of decisions. The paint application varies from thin washes and scumbling to semi-transparent areas and solid graphic lines. Each work seems driven by a limited 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 has made all his own. 

Each painting invites the viewer to play a game of discovering the head within the composition. In many, the contours of the overall shape evoke a head in a way that Peter Saul, Jim Nutt, or Alexej von Jawlensky in his mystical period might have done. And yet, even as these and other associations come to mind, the paintings take over and we begin to see ourselves seeing something fresh, a portrait that is both a mirror and an opaque representation. Once we discover the head, should we try to make connections between what we see and what we know of the human head, which would turn the painting into a literal representation? Or do we take pleasure in seeing the dance between representation and abstraction, description and sign, which Burckhardt has nimbly and knowingly set in motion? Not only has he rejected Judd’s view of painting as a rectangle, but he has also turned the idea of opticality associated with formalism on its head. 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 solitariness, 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 solitude and isolation we inevitably inhabit in our lives. What emotional states do we recognize in these works, and why? It is that depth of feeling and questioning, and that concomitant state of self-awareness, that Burckhardt is able to open up with a light and graceful touch that makes these breakthrough pieces. By making it clear from the outset that we are looking at portraits, he has found a way to bring play and improvisation to a new, intense, and unexpected pitch. 

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

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...