Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

8.5: Bay Area Figurative (1950s-1970s)

  • Page ID
    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)


    The San Francisco Bay Area artists were generally Abstract Expressionists until a small group of artists redefined the figure and its concept, an idea linking them together as the Bay Area Figurative artists. After World War II, artists in New York assembled in bars, restaurants, or different studios, the art dealers controlling most of their careers. In San Francisco, the artists gathered in college or university environments, supporting each other through academia and teaching. "Unlike New York artists, almost all West Coast painters and sculptors took teaching at universities and art schools as a given. Teaching art was, in fact, part of the West Coast culture for artists."[1] Many artists had tenured positions at one university, residencies, or visiting artists at another university. They were not influenced by the commercial marketplace, free to paint and experiment with diverse concepts.

    A core group of artists met weekly, exploring the figure's boundaries, the painting's spatial context, and the boundaries and interconnections of lines, patterns, color, and human interactions with those elements. Teachers and their students wanted art to communicate to people, avoiding the commercialism of New York. Elmer Bischoff stated, "the raw materials of art, their range, the tones of forms and imagery connected to the rawness should be fully realized in the picture; the complexity of yourself being poured into the painting is the issue…"[2]

    The artists also "created the most exciting and innovative figure drawings to have been made in the United States since World War II."[3] Although they worked in different methods, the full range of color was the central focus to create the impressions and resonance of light and dark, sunlight or shadow. The artists' fundamental difficulty was using an organic shape to create an abstract image. One artist stated, "One tried to fight off near-geometry coming into the work, to push it out, for geometry equaled sterility," and another recalled, the "use of a straight edge was absolutely forbidden,"[4] with no concept of a center or margin, the whole canvas received equal treatment.

    Art was not the only change in the San Francisco Bay area during this period. The civil rights movement in the South quickly found its way to the bay area. Rights for African Americans led to significant protests to remove the barriers to jobs, education, and housing. Gay rights also grew in the area, fighting for their ability to live their lifestyle. The push for women’s rights did not come until the 1970s. During this period, different groups held sit-ins, marches, and protests, many changing the region, its politics, and economics. Artist in this section:

    • Joan Brown (1938-1990)
    • Henrietta Berk (1919-1990)
    • Adelie Landis Bischoff (1926-2019)

    Joan Brown

    Joan Brown (1938-1990) was born in San Francisco into a family with an alcoholic father and an unhappy mother. Her early education was through Catholic schools in the city. When she found an ad for the California School of Fine Arts, she applied to avoid attending the religious school her parents preferred. She received a bachelor's and master's degree in art, meeting Elmer Bischoff, who became her inspirational instructor and mentor. She married a fellow student, Bill Brown, in 1956, a marriage which was annulled in 1962. She subsequently married Manuel Neri, with whom she had a long-term artistic collaboration, from 1962 to 1966. Bischoff taught her to believe in her feelings and inspiration, not worry about academic rules, and explore and believe in her abilities. Brown's early works focused on Abstract Expressionism, and her first show in New York brought her immediate attention. The style did not fit her artistic visions. Brown started to focus on more representational images based on her lifelong passions and interests; her family, pets, swimming, dancing; and later in life, she developed spirituality and interest in ancient cultures.

    Brown focused on the expression of the body and how it moves, placing the figure in an exciting setting. Simultaneously, she developed a bright, intense color palette applied with palette knives or large brushstrokes. Although she was associated with the Bay Area Figurative movement, "Brown herself was never concerned with such discussions and issues for, ultimately, the painting was a very private undertaking for the artist and ultimate devotional act in which she reflected upon her relationship to the world-at-large and the spirit within her."[5] Brown taught at several universities and colleges in the bay area, including the University of California, Berkeley. She inspired her students to believe in their artistic instincts, not the commercial world or different movements and defined styles. Brown was not interested in, or part of, the women's movement or any feminist agenda; Brown thought participating in any campaign might trivialize her views of art and personal expression. As she grew older, Brown studied spiritual ideals and traveled multiple times to India, creating sculptures reflecting icons of ancient cultures. In 1990, she was overseeing the installation of her obelisk in India when the concrete tower collapsed, killing her and two others.

    Brown's focus on autobiographical scenes frequently included her son Noel whom she had with Manuel Neri. Despite the problems of motherhood, she used a spare bedroom as a studio and generally painted at night, her young son a freeform model. Noel in the Kitchen (8.5.1) portrays Noel in the kitchen of her home in San Francisco, where he is exploring. A genuinely domestic image as Noel reaches for something on the counter, the dishes piled high, the two dogs waiting patiently by the boy. With a trowel, Brown used a full palette of primary colors, and in the painting, repeated squares and blocks of color; the black and white dogs stand out against the red cabinet. She includes specific details in the image, the dog's collar, Noel's bottom, the handles of the pans, and the small red cup, all bringing movement and reality to the painting. The image was true to life; the boy's pants were coming off, the dishes needed to be washed, and the floor and walls were a bit dingy. Brown wanted the backgrounds to be as important as the main objects explaining, "Looking back, I can distinctly remember feeling very strongly about the background not just being a background, or backdrop for the figure, but believing that it was every bit as important physically as [the imagery] in the foreground."[6]

    a boy and his two dogs in the kitchen in bright colors
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Noel in the Kitchen (1964, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 274.3 cm) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Brown and her then-husband, Gordon Cook, shared an interest in dancing and frequently dressed in their finery, ate at local restaurants, and danced to the melodic music of the forties and fifties. She painted a series of images of dancers, including Dancers in a City #2 (8.5.2). Brown added the dark, delineated skyline as the background behind the large red floor made with typical squares. The feel of the music dances across the bottom of the painting, adding to the beat of the moving figures. Her partner is sketched in, almost similar to a cartoon character. She generally added unusual or out-of-place elements, as seen in the dog by the dancers. Brown frequently added animals to her paintings, believing she found human characteristics in them, dogs her favorite animal, a protector.

    Brown created multiple self-portraits, all personal to her life and feelings, some illustrating the results of different events. After the Alcatraz Swim (8.5.3) reflects her harrowing experience of swimming across the bay from Alcatraz to the shore. Swimming was an essential part of her life, and she spent much time swimming in the cold waters of San Francisco Bay. Along the bay shoreline were rowing clubs that catered to men only; no women were allowed forcing the women to change in the public restroom or their cars. Brown joined other women, and they won a class-action lawsuit because of sexual discrimination; the clubs had to allow women in their facilities. In 1975, she entered the annual swim from Alcatraz; many people, including Brown, struggled with the problematic currents and wakes of the freighters. Because of hypothermia and disorientation, Brown had to be extricated from the water before reaching the shore. The experience was traumatic, and she painted a series of portraits reflecting her experiences. In this painting, Brown stands by the fireplace, appearing calm, while in the image over the fireplace, the wild waters of the bay swirl around her head, representing the absolute chaos of almost drowning. She entered the race again the following year, persevered, and finished the swim.

    a woman and man dancing on red tile with a dog and a city scape behind them
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Dancers in a City #2 (1972, enamel paint and fabric on canvas, 213.3 x 182.2 cm) (CC BY-NC 2.0)
    a woman in a blue dress standing next to a fire place
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): After the Alcatraz Swim #1 (1975, oil enamel on canvas, 243.8 x 198.1) (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Brown focused on her self-identity, emotional feeling, and physical appearance and painted multiple versions of self-portraits. The diverse backgrounds and details of the images reflect the conflicting feelings women experience from expectations of beauty, dress, or size. She generally portrays herself as looking forward, staring at her image in a mirror. Brown said, "Looking in the mirror, becoming a spectator, literally describing myself, is a very graphic way of being introspective."[7] She painted many self-portraits, giving a window into her life's emotional and physical changes and development. Although Brown insisted she was not part of any feminist movement. Her many introspective portraits explored one woman's self-exploration through the concepts of the time.

    Brown was known for the careless manner she used materials, including paint, which was habitually found on the floor, walls, furniture, and even large splats of paint in her hair or all over her clothing. In Self-Portrait in Fur Hat (8.5.4), she inexplicably dons a bedraggled-looking fur hat. The colors of the hat are the same as the background; the squares are a counterpoint to the wild straight strands of the fur. Her shirt is covered in paint, giving the appearance of an old paint shirt she was wearing. Her resolute calm blue eyes stare out of the portrait, surrounded by the light contrasting skin color. Self-Portrait at Age 42 (8.5.5) is one of the many birthday images she painted of herself. In this portrait, her eyes still look outward; however, they seem apprehensive, perhaps questioning that another year has passed. The background is plain, a darker shade of her dress, forming her face and hair as the central features.

    a woman in a brown jacket and a yellow and black hat against yellow and black checkerboard
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Self Portrait in Fur Hat (1972, enamel on panel, 118.6 x 75.4 cm) (CC BY-NC 2.0)
    a woman in a blue shirt with red hair against a blue wall
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Self Portrait at Age 42 (1980, oil on canvas, 182 x 152.5 cm) (C BY-NC 2.0)
    Interactive Element: Joan Brown

    Noel Neri, son of artist Joan Brown, talks about Brown as a mother and an artist. "This Kind of Bird Flies Backward: Paintings by Joan Brown" is on view at the San Jose Museum of Art.

    Henrietta Berk

    Henrietta Berk (1919-1990) was born in Kansas and moved to San Francisco as a child. She studied art at San Francisco State College and the California College of Arts and Crafts. Berk studied with Richard Diebenkorn at the college and was part of the Bay Area Figurative Movement artists. Berk employed many innumerable concepts using broad, heavy brushstrokes to apply the thick, brightly colored paint. Although she was well-known as an artist of the movement, she remains somewhat elusive in the general world.

    The Valley, Vacaville (8.5.6) portrays the area before the housing expansion in the bay area out into the nearby farmlands. The view appears from a hillside, across the farmland, into the flat land surrounding the bay and the bay itself. Berk used bright shades of oranges and yellows for the fields and dark greens for the contrasting trees. In the background, the deep blue of San Francisco Bay projects a horizontal relief before resuming the foreground colors in the sky. She used a limited palette, a feature found in most of her landscape paintings. Yellow Still Life (8.5.7) again demonstrates her use of bright colors, thick paint, and deep brushstrokes. Berk applied the paint quickly, frequently using paint directly from the tubes. The painting is divided multiple times by bold horizontal and vertical lines. The tablecloth's dark green and blue lines anchor the wall's bright yellow, thick lines. She dissected the yellow space with the horizontal blue lines. The round oranges center the lower half of the painting as the dark blue flowers force the eye to the top half. Berk balanced the painting with lines, position, and color.

    a landscape of yellows and blues
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): The Valley, Vacaville (1964-1968, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 121.9 cm) (CC BY-SA 4.0)
    a landscape of multiple bright colors
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Yellow Still Life (1960-1963, oil on canvas, 30.4 x 30.4 cm) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

    Berk was one of the Bay Area artists who introduced the human figure as part of their images. Vendors selling their wares could be found in many local communities and streets. Street Vendors (8.5.8) portray the vendor sitting behind his wares; the two people in the center appear engaged in conversation. Unlike many of her works, where Berk used a limited palette, this painting is exceptionally vibrant with various colors. The dual blues in the background set the base for the multi-colored umbrella and the colors of the vendor's wares. As in many Bay Area Figurative painters, the elements are abstracted, viewed in the items the vendor is selling or the conceptualized images of the people. In Self Portrait (8.5.9), the only thing known about Berk is her hair is probably long as it is gathered on top of her head and fills the top half of the painting. The color may be brown or red; using a light source brings different perspectives. Her eyes look down, the color and shape unknown, the nose and mouth mere abstracted lines, a reflection of the thick paint she applied with quick brushstrokes.

    a cafe scene of 3 men and one woman with a blue sky and coloful umbrella
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Street Vendors (1961-1963, oil on canvas, 40.6 x 50.8 cm) (CC BY-SA 4.0)
    a self portrait of a woman with read hair
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Self Portrait (1961-1963, oil on canvas, 40.6 x 40.6 cm) (CC BY-SA 4.0)
    Interactive Element: Henrietta Berk

    The Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University has collaborated with Steven Stern Fine Art and to present the fabulously wonderful Post WWII Abstract Expressionist Bay Area artwork for the Henrietta Berk Retrospective.

    Adelie Landis Bischoff

    Adelie Landis Bischoff (1926-2019) was born and lived in Brooklyn, New York as a child. She moved to California to study art at the California School of Fine Arts, attending school with her future husband, Elmer Bischoff, whom she married in 19. She supported herself as a nurse throughout her college studies. After graduation, Landis Bischoff studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and received her MFA. Landis Bischoff also became active in political activities in the San Francisco and Berkeley areas, even trying unsuccessfully to become a spy for the government. She was considered a feminist before the time of organized feminist movements. Landis Bischoff's home was destroyed in the massive 1991 Oakland Hills fire. The fire destroyed much of her and her husband's work.

    Initially, her work was based on Abstract Expressionism before she began to associate with the Bay Area Figurative movement. Landis Bischoff's use of light was distinct from the other Bay Area Figurative painters, with a more spiritual feeling of light dispersion. Her style did not follow many painters' thick, blob methods, as she used a smoother style to enhance the light. In the Coffee Shop (8.5.10), the bright window illuminates the background and draws the viewer to the person in the back of the room with the red sweater. Usually, the background is darker, and the foreground has the brightest light source. However, Landis Bischoff reversed the idea, and the viewer has to travel through the painting to the background on each side. The light source is unknown on one side of the painting; however, the wall is much brighter, and the grays and whites of the people's clothing are illuminated. The walls of the coffee shop are probably all painted in the same color; however, Landis Bischoff used the concept of reflective light to create depth and change.

    a restaurant scene with brown tables and multiple people
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Coffee Shop (1964, oil on board, 24.8 x 36.8 cm) ( CC BY-NC 2.0)

    [1] Selz, P. (2002). Nathan Oliveira, University of California Press, p. 67.

    [2] Tuchman, M. (1977). Richard Diebenkorn: The Early Years. Art Journal, 36(3), 206-220. doi:10.2307/776199

    [3] Williams, T. (2013). Drawings of the Bay Area School. Master Drawings, 51(4), 481-520. Retrieved May 18, 2021, from

    [4] Tuchman, M. (1977). Richard Diebenkorn: The Early Years. Art Journal, 36(3), 206-220. doi:10.2307/776199

    [5] Tsujimoto, K., Baas, J. (1998). The Art of Joan Brown, University of California Press, p. 3.

    [6] Tsujimoto, K., Baas, J. (1998). The Art of Joan Brown, University of California Press, p. 65.

    [7] Retrieved from (23 June 2921)

    This page titled 8.5: Bay Area Figurative (1950s-1970s) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (Open Educational Resource Initiative at Evergreen Valley College) .

    • Was this article helpful?