Article  /  Arnoldsche   MatthewDrutt   Artists
Published: 13.06.2022
Matthew Drutt
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Arnoldsche Art Publishers
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Manfred Bischoff. Brooch: Ciao, 1982. Glass, steel, luminescent paint.. Photo by: Otto Künzli. Published at: Manfred Bischoff: Ding Dong. Manfred Bischoff
Brooch: Ciao, 1982
Glass, steel, luminescent paint.
Photo by: Otto Künzli
Published at: Manfred Bischoff: Ding Dong
© By the author. Read Copyright.

This article is included in the book Manfred Bischoff: Ding Dong, Arnoldsche, Stuttgart, pp. 13-15.

At the latter stages of his career, Bischoff trained his sights on the intellectuals whose ideas expressed a preoccupation with the absurdity of humanity -Foucault, Joyce, Kafka- and figures like Warhol, who revolutionized the content suitable to high art. Kindred spirits, which thanks to jewelry, he had the temerity to draw into his universe. Potentially an indication of a turn towards greater seriousness, when asked about his aspirations from this point looking ahead, he answered: “Hope, love, a little bit of fun…Nothing more.” Indeed, this was the guiding principle of Bischoffism.
If not for his mother’s initiative, Manfred Bischoff might well have never found his path in life. By his own account, he was not a gifted student and lacked direction. “I made high school, but I did not finish it; and then I began a very uncertain life.” (1) Born in the wake of WWII in a small village in the Black Forest region of Germany, Bischoff belonged to the generation of disaffected youth who came of age amidst the radical social and political upheavals of the 1960s, made all the more traumatic in postwar Germany, which was still grappling with the shame of its history under National Socialism. Plagued by a deep-rooted sense of doubt and inadequacy, at the age of eighteen Bischoff traded in the sheltered isolation of his childhood home in Schömberg for the radical chic of West Berlin, which at that time still enjoyed a privileged status as a thriving incubator for international experimental art and culture. “I came to Berlin in the late 1960s and felt pretty much like an ‘asphalt cowboy." (2) The ‘asphalt jungle’ was surrounded by a wall, just as in the Black Forest you were surrounded by trees. So I felt quite at home for about 18 years.(3)

After several fruitless pursuits there, which included working as a photographer, his mother stepped in and directed him to study jewelry-making so that he would have a practical profession by which he could support himself.  She must have been thinking that he would work in some aspect of the commercial industry, such as stone setting or production fabrication; never for a second could she have imagined that the experience would unlock Bischoff’s creative subconscious. He discovered that he was good at the technical aspects of metalwork, and this filled him with a sense of accomplishment and positivity that had never existed before, providing him at last with a non-academic alternative to pursue his burgeoning intellectual curiosity. (4) Bischoff’s training, first in Pforzheim with Reinhold Reiling and subsequently in Munich with Hermann Jünger, provided him with his first real mentors, and they had very different pedagogical approaches. “Reiling was only interested in freedom, and he opened the doors very, very wide.” (5) Bischoff recalled later. Jünger, on the other hand, was more engaged with his students’ individual problems: “Hermann was very good in teaching each level…He wouldn’t force people who could not develop themselves more.” (6). This combination of nurtured and unbridled learning facilitated both his growing sense of self-confidence and the need for affirmation or approval, and the experience instilled a greater sense of purpose and belonging to a community, one which would not be restricted to fellow goldsmiths but which grew organically to include people working in other fields who shared a common interest in philosophical discourse, aesthetics, and politics.

This became a somewhat formalized affair in 1981 when, following his studies in Munich, as he was searching for a studio situation back in Berlin, Bischoff came back into contact with a former colleague from Pforzheim, Georg Dobler who, along with fellow jeweler Winfried Krüger and sculptor Thomas Wernecke, was in the process of setting up a communal studio typical of Berlin at the time known as a Werkfabrik. Multidisciplinary in nature—it included a rotating coterie of architects, photographers, and other creators—with transparent studios and shared common spaces for eating, reading, and meetings/discussions, the Werkfabrik was diametrically opposed to the notion that solitude nurtures creativity. Dobler recalls that “we did not want a leisurely studio community in the arts and crafts environment. We wanted to elevate our jewelry to the level of contemporary art in the avant-garde sense…The Werkfabrik was interdisciplinary, with lunch breaks and evening discussions in the nearby Gasthaus Lentz, with plenty of beer and wine. There were impulsive arguments about aesthetic concepts—no conclusions were ever reached—but everything was carried into the next day…Of course, these discussions also had an impact on our jewelry objects. Cheap materials became the basis of our work, artistically charged, inexpensive, and easily available.” (7)

Manfred Bischoff. Brooch: Untitled, 1984. Nickel silver, emulsion paint, pencil. Photo by: Ini Geske
Published at: Manfred Bischoff: Ding Dong

Bischoff’s works from these years (pp. 24 – 45) reveal the myriad ideas, materials, and techniques that he was experimenting with without arriving at a clear destination: “I was searching for about five years in this room of non-precious materials…But it was not really mine. It was a searching—it was an experience which was just beautiful, and I was complimented [on the works], but I didn’t feel very stimulated. It was too much outside.” (8) These objects nonetheless embody fundamental themes and strategies that would evolve over the course of his creative output in the years ahead: the primacy of drawing, the incorporation of language—especially statements or concepts with ambiguous meanings--, recurring animal motifs fraught with symbolism, especially horses, and a sense of humor which he frequently trained back on himself.  One can track the shift from drawing as a surface treatment to it becoming the form of the object itself in this period (pp. 34 – 36), with Bischoff’s telltale frenetic handwriting and/or line drawing becoming the determinant formal structure of the object as his artistic style and identity began to take shape. But the pair of brooches from 1983 that incorporate photographs of Bischoff wearing silly hats are especially significant (pp. 26 - 7), not for their intrinsic artistic value, but because they project his developing ideology about making and knowledge that he would articulate both in subsequent works and in public comments later in his career: “So the question is not what is jewellery. This question is not important. I think it’s important to use no adjectives. It’s a ‘behauptung’. I say this is jewellery and I stay behind it. Even if it’s stupid. But it is a controlled stupidity. ... The work is a work of a fool, but a controlled fool. I know what I’m doing.” (9)

Manfred Bischoff. Brooch: Schlange, 1980. Silver, copper, tombac, gold. 11x13,8x2 cm. Photo by: Otto Künzli
Published at: Manfred Bischoff: Ding Dong

At the same time that Bischoff was nearing the end of this period of searching, he was reaching the limits of his tolerance both for Berlin and for the communal atmosphere of the Werkfabrik. Dobler recalls: “The whole togetherness was never without conflicts. We began to distance ourselves from each other in order to avoid becoming too close in our work.” (10) But Bischoff observed an even bigger crisis than artistic ego taking shape: “We were caged in Berlin, and I saw…friends daily in our favorite park [Savigny Platz]. I saw them getting old and everybody said I want to go away from Berlin, but nobody did. So I saw this would not be my future, getting old in this Berlin.” (11)

His relocation to Italy in 1984 was not an arbitrary destination. He had visited the country more than a decade earlier and fallen in love with the Tuscan countryside. It offered everything that the Black Forest (and Berlin) did not: rolling hills and an open landscape bathed in the warm glow of southern sunlight. “…I was searching for a home—a mother—and I found it in the form of an old mill in the south of Florence.” (12) The mill in Strada in Chianti was the first of a series of buildings he occupied that belonged to a family he had befriended, culminating with a 15th century Capuchin cloister outside the village of San Casciano dei Bagni (2001 - 2015).  The Tuscan lifestyle was much better suited to his temperament, providing an ideal balance between being able to work in relative seclusion and having access to a diverse community of locals and transplants like him who would congregate at the local watering hole in town. Among those there with whom he formed lasting friendships was Joseph Kosuth, who met Bischoff soon after his arrival in San Casciano: “He introduced himself to me at the Bar Centrale in town, as I recall we had mutual friends in Munich and he was familiar with my work…I quickly understood him as a kindred soul, and I could discuss anything with him… His approach to life as an artist was impressive, it reminded me of what struck me in Japanese culture, where an aesthetic approach to one’s existence meant that a respect for the taxonomies that organizes the world didn’t organize and order his world. He saw things differently and thus behaved, in his life and work, differently.” (13)

Souvenir Commento (1985, p. 56) is exemplary of the shift that occurred in Bischoff’s work following the move to Italy. A free and open composition bursting with color and energy, it is formally more radical in execution than earlier works. The conventional idea of a brooch as a densely integrated object has been liberated into multiple elements flying through space only tenuously linked together. Materials like gold and coral—which along with jade became his core materials henceforth—are embraced precisely for the high value symbolism and connection to traditional ornament that caused him to formerly reject such elements in the first place. But here, they are redefined by being left unrefined, downplaying the highly polished forms and surfaces normally burnished to produce a luxurious finish. The sketch for the piece is one of the rare instances in which the object is an almost faithful transcription of its drawing (p. 58), but it demonstrates how Bischoff thought differently about jewelry; studies in form and mechanics were subservient to studies in form and a kind of pictorialism or relief tableau. As if he himself realized how new this approach would be not just for him but for jewelry itself, he inscribed the sketch for the brooch with the moniker “REVOLUZZER” (REVOLUTIONARY) below the main body of the composition.

Manfred Bischoff. Brooch: Hubertus Kreuz, 1987. Gold, silver, shell, wood. Photo by: Rike Bartels
Published at: Manfred Bischoff: Ding Dong

From here Bischoff’s output is prolific and consistent, with the cartoon-like pictorialism of his objects becoming more elemental. His figures attain a more timeless, primitive quality achieved in part by the deceptively unsophisticated looking way in which things are put together, such as in the brooch Solomann (1990, p. 81), where the figure’s arms are impossibly thin, and the legs seem barely attached to the body. Communicating the idea of a well-made object is less important than the aesthetics of the object in question.  The subject of the work points the way towards Bischoff’s migration toward subjects dealing with philosophy and humanity, but the profundity of those concepts would always be kept in check through Bischoff’s word play, in this case, toying with the wisdom of King Solomon. At some point, he worked out a better way of presenting his jewelry, using the drawings first as foundational imagery on which the object would reside, and ultimately integrating the two together, so that the object was part of the composition when presented, and then detached from it when the object was being worn. Thus, his jewelry had a life outside of being worn. As Bischoff’s scrawl became more frenetic, bordering on illegibility, its relationship to the rest of the composition became occasionally reminiscent of the work of Cy Twombly, where language and drawing collapse onto one another e.g. Trust Fund Baby (2002, p. 168).

At the latter stages of his career, Bischoff trained his sights on the intellectuals whose ideas expressed a preoccupation with the absurdity of humanity—Foucault, Joyce, Kafka— and figures like Warhol, who revolutionized the content suitable to high art. Kindred spirits, which thanks to jewelry, he had the temerity to draw into his universe. Potentially an indication of a turn towards greater seriousness, when asked about his aspirations from this point looking ahead, he answered: “Hope, love, a little bit of fun…Nothing more.” (14) Indeed, this was the guiding principle of Bischoffism.

From an unpublished interview between Helen W. Drutt English and Manfred Bischoff, March 24, 2006.
(2) The artist is making a reference here to John Schlesinger’s breakthrough 1969 film, Midnight Cowboy, starring Jon Voigt and Dustin Hoffman, which chronicles the tragi-comic exploits of a naïve youth from rural Texas trying to strike it rich in New York City as a gigolo, but who ends up being disillusioned by the city’s lack of hospitability.

(3) “Dialogue. Manfred Bischoff and Pieranna Cavalchini,” in Manfred Bischoff, exhibition catalogue, Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2002, p. 10.
(4) Op cit. note 1.
(5) Op cit. note 1.
(6) Op cit. note 1.
(7) Georg Dobler, unpublished text, August 2016, unpaginated, courtesy the artist.
(8) Op cit. note 1.
(9) “Manfred Bischoff. Exit/Entrance. Kunst ist eine Behauptung.” Interview with Marina Elenskaya,, April 3, 2011.
(10) Op cit. note 7.
(11) Op cit. note 1.
(12) Op cit. note 3.
(13) From an interview between Matthew Drutt and Joseph Kosuth, May 14, 2021. Np.
(14) Op cit. note 1.


About the author

Matthew Drutt
is an American curator and writer who specializes in modern and contemporary art and design. Based in New York, he has operated Drutt Creative Arts Management (DCAM) since 2013. In 2006 the French Government made him a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters in recognition of his accomplishments.