Walter Bischoff Brings His Artist Stable to Mt. San Antonio College By Erin Goodwin-Guererro

In 1988 Walter Bischoff opened his Stuttgart gallery, and soon after, another gallery in Berlin. In 1997, he converted the Knight’s Hall of an old castle in Zell, Germany, in the Black Forest into a Museum. Bischoff is proud to note that this museum was established exclusively with private funds. The Villa Haiss Museum boasts a collection of international art that represents some of Germany’s most fascinating contemporary artists: Beuys, Bazelitz, Penk, Richter. There are some big name American artists in the collection too: Warhol, Dine, and Mel Ramos, Cindy Sherman.

Walter Bischoff with a Valerie Koshlyakov sculpture in the barn-studio at his San Jose ranch.

Valerie Koshlyakov is part of the collection, of course, as he is one of Bischoff’s stable. Now an important artist of international stature, Koshlykov is one of Bischoff’s “discoveries.” In 1992, Bischoff took a group of his artists to show in Moscow in the Soviet environment, There, he met Koshlyakov who could not get art materials and was working on the sheets of cardboard that have become more or less his trademark. Bischoff became Koshlyahov’s patron, mentor and representative to the Western art world, and to this day maintains a watchful eye over his life. Bischoff is unique among gallerists in the supportive role he assumes towards his artists. He lives his life largely for the advancement of their careers. The artists he represents work in photography, painting and sculpture. Some of their styles are widely contrasting, yet many of the painters have a distinctly contemporary German flavor in painterly abstraction and depiction of the figure. Walter Bischoff has been in town, at his San Jose ranch this week. Bischoff never has much time to spend here, but he loves the ranch and even as urban sprawl moves closer, he has vowed never to sell it. From the top of Aborn Road in the East Hills, the view from the ranch encompasses just about all of Silicon Valley.

From Bischoff’s ranch, a grand view of the Santa Clara Valley

Rusting farm equipment, a few modest residences, some fruit trees, a horse corral, a horse and a dog are part of the scene. A large barn that has been converted into an artists’ studio is prominent. Once an apricot farm, most of those trees have been devastated by ground squirrels and replaced by open acreage or new trees. But the animals still play a big role in the ambiance: the horses, squirrels, possums and skunks are joined by deer, coyotes, turkeys, lynx, wild pigs and an occasional mountain lion. The farm dog has learned the hard way to leave the wildlife alone. The ranch looks and smells like the country, and uniquely like California. What an amazing experience it must be for an artist from Berlin – or anywhere in Germany – to spend several months in this setting, working in the “quiet” of nature on his or her art. This artist’s retreat came about quite by accident, or perhaps we should say it evolved from a dream of owning a San Francisco Victorian house. At one time, Bischoff, an important young Stuttgart architect, thought he would invest in a Victorian house in San Francisco as a personal retreat or vacation home for his family. As one thing led to another, he began to realize that he had plenty of urban experience in Europe and what he wanted to do was escape to the country when he had the chance. Under pressure from a realtor to make a decision within twenty-four hours on this stunningly beautiful 30 acres, Bischoff said “yes” and has never regretted it. He has built his own studio apartment on the property where some beautiful works from his private collection are seen.

Part of Bischoff’s private collection at the ranch: a two panel painting by Michael Danner

Bischoff, as a successful architect, employed seven other architects in his practice. They designed and built schools and public buildings. But the unrealized desire to become a painter himself sparked a career change for Bischoff when he met another German who wanted a partner in a Chicago gallery. In 1987, Bischoff retired as an architect and became an art dealer. The Asperger-Bischoff Gallery only lasted a year, but Bischoff’s life was henceforth committed to representing artists and looking for opportunities to promote their work.

Natascha Mann’s painting in the ranch’s studio apartment

Developing the ranch into an artists’ retreat fit beautifully into Walter Bischoff’s vision of responsibly representing his artists. Unlike art dealers who coldly approach their relationship to the artist as an exercise in “the bottom line”, Bischoff is like most artists — he almost never makes a profit. He manages to generate some income for his artists through sales in his galleries and, even more, by showings at international art fairs. More importantly, he acts as a patron, a guide and a nurturing presence in the lives of his artists.

Mixed media work by Hannah Stutz-Mendel, from Walter Bischoff’s collection,

Last year, Bischoff curated around twenty exhibitions in his galleries, and in other non-profit sites that are simply promotional opportunities for the artists. He showed the work of his artists in seven international art fairs and sponsored the trip of one of his artist to his artists’ retreat at the San Jose ranch. Now he is showing seventeen of his artists’ work at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut California, near Los Angeles. This show evolved from introductions made during a 2006 solo exhibition by San Jose artist, Katherine Levin Lau, which Bischoff attended. Katherine Levin Lau and Walter Bischoff first met in 1986, when the ranch was first developed to be an artists’ retreat. Bischoff held a couple of public receptions in the Barn to introduce his first artists to the local art scene. Levin Lau, always the enthusiastic hostess, invited Walter and his guest artists to her home. She and Walter struck up a friendship that has endured for over twenty years. In that time she has continued to try to make social connections for artists working at the ranch and to arrange opportunities for them to have exhibitions in the San Jose area. Frequently they inaugurate their new work in the galleries at San Jose State University. There have also been exhibitions at such varied sites as the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, the Frederick Spratt Gallery, the de Saisset Museum of Art, the d.p. Fong Gallery and at the Goethe Institute in San Francisco.

Artist Katherine Levin Lau and Walter Bischoff open the barn-studio fo a tour.

Katherine Levin Lau tells the story of introducing Walter Bischoff to her own work. With trepidation, she invited him to look at the current paintings in her studio on several occasions, and could not gage his reaction. Bischoff definitely is reserved. Then, at an unexpected moment he offered her the opportunity to show in two consecutive exhibitions in one year. Their friendship has developed into more introductions, wider acquaintances in the San Jose art community, artist exchanges and opportunities for individual San Jose artists to exhibit in Germany, as well. She has returned to Stuttgart and Berlin many times, and helped other American artists to get around in Germany. South Bay artists such as photographer, David Pace, painter Kelly Detweiler and printmakers, Theta Belcher and Geoff Bowman all have shown at America Haus or the Byrnes Institute, non-profit sites in Stuttgart where Bischoff curates exhibitions.

Abstract expressionist Hans Rentschler’s painting, included in exhibition at Mt.San Antonio College

The current exhibition at Mt. San Antonio College shows many of the artists who Bischoff has brought to the San Jose ranch over the years, and a few new profiles, too. Michael Danner, Adochi, Steffen Fischer, Heibenstreit, Hildegard Esslinger, Hans Rentschler, Hannah St√ºtz-Mentzel, Natascha Mann and Thomas Henninger, whose paintings were recently seen at San Jose State, are all included. The collection shown at Mt. San Antonio College is a bit out of the way for San Jose viewers, but keep your ears open for news of the next exhibitions by Bischoff’s artists in San Jose.

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