JPRI Occasional Paper No. 51 (March 2015)
David Park and Bay Area Figuration
by Nancy Boas


Bay Area Figurative Art, the notable 1950s development that grew out of Abstract Expressionism, has been recently described by critic Kenneth Baker as “the region’s only modern art movement, so far, to gain global recognition.” [1] The group, led by originator David Park, included Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Paul Wonner, Theophilus Brown, Nathan Oliveira, Manuel Neri, and Joan Brown. These artists are valued for their important contributions to San Francisco artistic and cultural history and appreciation continues to grow regionally, nationally and internationally. [2]

The popular narrative of the rise of Abstract Expressionism is that it originated and was centered in New York after World War II and that San Francisco Abstract Expressionism occurred later as a second-generation response. In fact, Abstract Expressionism arose almost simultaneously on the East and West Coasts in the mid-1940s—a national phenomenon responding to the shock of war. But because most American critics were New York-based, they controlled the story. Few knew that at the same time Jackson Pollock was beginning his drip paintings on the East Coast, veteran and student John Grillo, the first action painter on the West Coast, was flinging paint and other substances at canvas, a technique he developed while stationed in Okinawa during the war. [3]

In the mid 1940s and 1950s, San Francisco artists lived in a different world than their colleagues on the East Coast. New York artists met in bars, cafes, and studios; and dealers played a large role in their careers. In contrast, artistic life in the Bay Area centered around the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) and other art schools and universities. In addition, Northern California artists tended to live more domestic lives in contrast to the much heavier drinking and carousing by the New York painters.

Most of the progressive painters in postwar San Francisco taught or studied at the CSFA where they believed that they could be financially self-sufficient to pursue their art without living in New York. CSFA became one of the most advanced in the country where Abstract Expressionism flourished just after the war when recently discharged veterans sought to take advantage of free college tuition offered by President Roosevelt’s GI Bill of Rights.

As early as 1946, David Park formed three important friendships—with fellow CSFA teachers Elmer Bischoff and Hassel Smith and with Richard Diebenkorn, then a student. They met for lunch most days in Park’s studio at the art school and on weekends at their home studios to critique each other’s work. The same year, Clyfford Still arrived to teach at the CSFA. In 1945 Still had shown his work at Peggy Guggenheim’s New York gallery, Art of This Century, and in 1947 his large non-objective canvases had a stunning impact on San Francisco viewers at his solo show at the Legion of Honor. The following year, an exhibition of non-objective paintings by Park, Bischoff, and Hassel Smith at the San Francisco Museum of Art aroused further consternation and excitement.

Soon after, in an act of dramatic rejection, Park took his non-objective paintings from his Berkeley studio to the dump. Thereafter, he embarked on a figurative style that he called “pictures.” [4] He first exhibited a figurative painting in March of 1950, about the same time Willem de Kooning began his painting, Woman I. Few recognized that Park’s innovative work marked one of the most important midcentury developments in American art.

The lure of Abstract Expressionism was so strong that many people perceived Park’s move to figuration as repudiation—a defection from the true path. In the 1950s bringing figures into Abstract Expressionism seemed not only a contradiction in terms but heretical. It was a brave and lonely move for Park, and for almost three years his friends and fellow painters were seriously shocked by this work. Diebenkorn famously exclaimed, “My God, what’s happened to David!” [5]

In time, however, Park’s new work influenced his colleagues. In fact, in 1953 Elmer Bischoff and in 1955 Richard Diebenkorn began painting figuratively. Soon, a whole generation of San Francisco artists followed suit, including Theophilus Brown, Paul Wonner, Nathan Oliveira, Manuel Neri and Joan Brown. Park later told a critic that he felt his new figuration should not be considered the beginning of a separate movement. He called it a divergence from the mainstream rather than a break or a separation. [6] All the freedom he had gained through his Abstract Expressionist period is revealed in his figurative work.

Painters Park, Diebenkorn, and Bischoff formed lifelong friendships and their work shared common values—the intimacy of domesticity, the appreciation of everyday life as the highest good, and the pleasure of the beneficent setting of Northern California.


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Studio 13 Jazz Band playing in the social hall at the California School of Fine Arts, 1957. From left: Joan Brown (observing), David Park (on piano), Wally Hedrick (banjo), and Elmer Bischoff (far right trumpet). Photo: Jerry Burchard.

The rediscovery of jazz had a tremendous effect on the San Francisco art scene. Artists on both coasts were interested in the Dixieland Jazz revival, but most strongly in San Francisco where David Park organized the Studio 13 Jazz Band at the California School of Fine Arts. The band was named for the classroom at the school where the group practiced and performed. David Park played piano, Bischoff played the cornet and trumpet, Wally Hedrick the banjo, and in the beginning the CSFA director, Douglas MacAgy, played drums. The fact that the school’s director played in the band gives an idea of the lack of hierarchy that prevailed at the school.

The community of visual artists, poets, writers, and musicians was also strong at that time. And jazz was an important connection between the older Abstract Expressionist and Figurative artists and the next generation, the Beats and the funk artists of the mid-1950s. Park bridged these groups and enjoyed the respect of the younger artists and poets. Wally Hedrick organized the Six Gallery, a famous artist-run cooperative space. There, the poet Allen Ginsberg gave the first full reading of his poem “Howl,” a work that came to define the Beat generation.

Park transformed Abstract Expressionism’s unbounded spaces and non-objectivity in favor of a new concept of space that suggests the natural world in which humans exists. Using a minimum of information to pull together what was necessary to represent, he worked to achieve a balance between the definition of the image and the presence of the paint itself. He often chose an unusual perspective that invited the spectator to become a participant.

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David Park, Red Bather, 1958. Oil on canvas, 54 x 50 in. Private collection. Courtesy of Hackett | Mill, Representative of the Estate of David Park.

David Park’s Red Bather demonstrates the spatial unity of a figure embedded in a beautifully brushed non-objective field, giving equal treatment to the entire surface. The figure presents the new postwar American—sportive, informal, and close to nature. The bather stands before what looks like an abstract canvas of rising white forms in a dark expansive field.

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Elmer Bischoff, Orange Sweater, 1955. Oil on canvas, 48 1/2 x 57 in. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © The Estate of Elmer Bischoff.

Elmer Bischoff’s figurative paintings are celebrated for their atmospheric space achieved through opalescent colors and feathery brushwork. He paints bathers and nudes standing at the edge of the shore in California scenes. He also painted interiors, his figures inhabiting large airy rooms. In Bischoff’s large 1955 canvas, Orange Sweater, he describes the woman with a burst of warm color that contrasts with the cool background.

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Richard Diebenkorn, Girl Looking at Landscape. Oil on canvas, 59 x 60 3/8 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alan H. Temple. © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.


The force of Park’s influence led Richard Diebenkorn to leave his successful non-objective style and begin painting figuratively. Diebenkorn said, “For someone who was intending to continue as an abstract painter, I was clearly consorting with the wrong company.” [7] Girl Looking at Landscape (1957) demonstrates characteristics shared by Diebenkorn, Park, and other figurative painters—namely, location of a figure in both indoors and outdoors; high-voltage color; and equal treatment of all parts of the canvas. In addition, it was typical of the figurative group to generalize the face in order to unify the composition and to downplay individuality of the person. In Girl Looking at Landscape Diebenkorn downplays specificity by painting the back of the head.

Theophilus Brown often painted nudes and bathers in nature using strong gestural brushwork. His imagery contained discreet symbols that were embedded with personal meaning. During this period Paul Wonner cropped his compositions and used thick paint. Later his paintings became smooth and literal. Nathan Oliveira portrayed the existential man. His shadowed figures in vacant spaces conveyed a psychological tone darker than that of the other painters.

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Joan Brown, Girl Sitting, 1962. Oil on canvas, 60 x 47 ¾ in. Oakland Museum of California, gift of Dr. Samuel West. Courtesy of the Estate of Joan Brown.


Joan Brown and her second husband, Manuel Neri, were younger artists who favored lush paint and bold coloration. Their interests later merged with the Funk and Beat aesthetics. Neri’s sculptures of the period used raw plaster and oil paint to create forms in three dimensions in the same spirit that his figurative colleagues created on canvas. Although Brown claimed her teacher Elmer Bischoff as her mentor, her work most closely resembles that of David Park’s in its thick impasto and funkiness. In a conversation with Neri, Brown defined the term funk by declaring, “It’s David’s work. That’s funky.” [8]

Wayne Thiebaud lived and taught in Sacramento, California, from 1951 until 1960, with occasional New York stays. Although he was not part of the original Bay Area Figurative development, by the late 1950s he was familiar with the group and formed friendships with most of them. Today the Figurative artists’ influence on his art is recognized. His work echoed their aesthetic preferences for creamy paint and vivid pigment, but it is expressed with a different, more light-hearted sensibility. His earlier work emphasized still lifes of food and, in recent decades, imaginary and fanciful landscapes of northern California.

The Bay Area Figurative artists have continued to gain recognition for their work’s intrinsic value and staying power. Park’s growing stature is reflected in recent purchases of his paintings and in impressive exhibitions of his work. In 2013, London gallerist Thomas Williams held an exhibition “The Bay Area School: Californian Artists from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.” [9] Williams argued that the Bay Area artists’ importance in post-war American art has been overlooked; and that these artists’ works are of equal importance to their East Coast counterparts, both in the Abstract Expressionist period, and later in the Figurative movement led by David Park.

As part of the renewed acknowledgment of David Park’s importance, in 2014, the Yale University Art Gallery purchased a major Park painting, The Model, which was the impetus for the gallery’s exhibition “Five West Coast Painters: Bischoff, Diebenkorn, Neri, Park, and Thiebaud.” The exhibition was the San Francisco Figurative artists’ most significant exposure on the East Coast in several decades. The Anderson Collection at Stanford University, a new museum that opened in 2014, contains outstanding paintings by David Park and Richard Diebenkorn. The renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, scheduled to reopen in 2016, will include expanded galleries for Bay Area Figurative art. Finally, my biography of Park and the memoir by his daughter, Helen Park Bigelow, have given readers a fuller awareness of Park’s life and art as well as the cultural era in which the Bay Area Figurative artists flourished. [10] The ongoing reassessment of post-war Northern California art has revised and broadened understanding of twentieth-century American art and has provided a window into the artistic creativity of the region.


Nancy Boas has had a wide career as an art historian, author, and curator living in San Francisco. Her two major books have championed Golden State artists, The Society of Six: California Colorists (University of California Press, 1988) and David Park: A Painter’s Life (University of California Press, 2012). The latter is the definitive biography of Park—the genius at the center of the figurative movement, America’s Pacific Rim challenge to the dominance of the East Coast in the arts. She has lectured from London to New York, and in 2014 the Yale University Art Museum invited her to talk at their exhibition “Five West Coast Painters: Bischoff, Diebenkorn, Neri, Park, and Thiebaud.”


NOTES

[1] Kenneth Baker, “Holiday Gift Guide.” San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, December 1, 2013. [Return to Text]

[2] Many ideas in this article are derived from my book, David Park: A Painter’s Life. Berkeley: UC Press, 2012. [Return to Text]

[3] John Grillo, interview with author, March 1990. [Return to Text]

[4] Paul Mills, Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting, exh. cat. (Oakland: Oakland Art Museum, 1957), 6-8. [Return to Text]

[5] Richard Diebenkorn, in Paul Mills, The New Figurative Arts of David Park (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1988), 70. [Return to Text]

[6] E. M. Polley, “Art and Artists: Sampling of David Park’s Work Shown At Oakland Museum,” Vallejo Times-Herald, 27 May 1962. [Return to Text]

[7] RD in response to questionnaire from Dan Tooker, Apr. 3, 1973, in preparation for a book and filmstrip to be published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich; in Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, 88, Rizzoli. [Return to Text]

[8] Manuel Neri, interview with author, February 20, 1991. [Return to Text]

[9] Thomas Williams, The Bay Area School: California Artists from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Lund Humphries in association with Thomas Williams Fine Art Ltd., 2013. [Return to Text]

[10] Nancy Boas, David Park: A Painter’s Life. Berkeley: UC Press, 2012. Helen Park Bigelow. David Park Painter: Nothing Held Back. New York: Hudson Hill Press, 2009. [Return to Text]



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