Gallery  February 28, 2022  Megan D Robinson

Abstraction & Figuration in “Bischoff / Burckhardt: A Dialogue”

George Adams Gallery

Installation view, Elmer Bischoff/Tom Burckhardt: A Dialogue, George Adams Gallery, New York, 2022.

Bischoff/Burckhardt: A Dialogue, now at New York’s George Adams Gallery, creates a visual conversation between influential twentieth-century Bay-Area painter Elmer Bischoff (1916–1991) and contemporary New York-based painter Tom Burckhardt, drawing interesting parallels between Bischoff’s monumental abstractions and Burckhardt’s abstracted heads.

Both artists have a long history of pushing the boundaries between abstraction and figuration. In fact, Burckhardt has said that Bischoff’s ability to “jump back and forth, or blur the border” between the two helped him to see the demarcation between figuration and abstraction as a ridiculous construct.

Coming from different generations, the two artists never met, though, as a student, Burckhardt was exposed to Bischoff and others involved in Abstract Expressionism and the Bay Area Figurative Movement.  The “sense of feel” in Bischoff’s work appealed to Burckhardt; it was “a kind of a human touch” different from the New York intellectualism he grew up with, and he melded these disparate approaches into a personal, visual language.

© The Estate of Elmer Bischoff, courtesy the Estate of Elmer Bischoff and George Adams Gallery, New York. Photos: M Lee Fatheree.

Elmer Bischoff, No. 36, 1978. Acrylic on canvas. 96 3/4 x 80 inches.

Painted on massive white canvases, Bischoff’s late abstractions use a gridded central motif surrounded by organic forms. The composition is suggestive of a window-framed view into an ethereal, cellular reality and the forms’ zestful motion feels almost musical. According to the gallery press release, Bischoff described these squiggles and blocks as “a sort of snap, pop, crack, smash, zip,” while the “in-between area suggests a ‘la la la la la la.’”

Capitalizing on the phenomenon of pareidolia—the tendency to impose meaning on random patterns, like seeing Jesus in burnt toast— Burckhardt’s paintings group shape and color into vaguely humanoid forms reminiscent of a person in profile, “letting the viewer do the final construction.”

© Tom Burckhardt, courtesy the artist and George Adams Gallery, New York. Photos: George Adams Gallery.

Tom Burckhardt, Swelling Itching Brain, 2021. Oil on linen. 20 x 16 inches.

His paintings are lined along the gallery walls, as if waiting to look through Bischoff’s fantastical windows. While many people have called these Burckhardt paintings Abstract portraits, he feels that is a misnomer. A portrait is usually a specific person, and his pieces are general explorations of humanity, without race or gender. “I do call them heads,” he's admitted. He wants the viewer to wonder whether they’re human or not, to see a line that suggests a chin or a nose and wonder if the painting portrays an actual sentient being or abstract randomness.

Burckhardt considers color his “primary language.” He builds his paintings starting with color, then works into form, adding lines and shapes to create a sense of recognition. His use of color doesn’t reinforce pictorial naturalism—there is no such thing as skin color in his paintings. For him, color has no fixed meaning or association, it is anarchic. It mutates and changes depending on the context of the painting. Burckhardt sees similar aspects of mutability in Bischoff’s work.

“Bischoff’s paintings have this diffuse quality; as if they’re spreading apart or atomizing. My paintings feel like they're congealing out of some abstract, diffuse place, and haven't solidified completely from the liquid state,” he explained. “We're driving in different directions. But we're passing each other in a very interesting moment.”

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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