In the 1950s, the San Francisco Bay Area was an epicenter for new thinking and artistic exploration. At the center of this explosion was the painter David Park, whose bold colors and everyday subjects helped usher in a new modernism. In search of a form beyond the then-popular Abstract Expressionism, Park, who tragically died in 1960 at 49, started the Bay Area Figurative Movement.
For more than 20 years San Francisco writer Nancy Boas has been tracking Park’s life. The result is the new David Park: A Painter’s Life, just released by UC Press. Boas interviewed 125 people for the biography, including many of Park’s friends and contemporaries, including the artists Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff.
“Richard Diebenkorn was most anxious that I get it right,” said Boas, who is also the author of The Society of Six: California Colorists. “He spoke carefully. He revised and corrected himself, as he does in his painting. I could feel the reverence he had for Park and the deep friendship they had.”
Park lived in Berkeley and taught at Cal, among other places, and Boas recreates the vibrant artistic atmosphere of the 1950s when painters mingled easily with pianists and UC Berkeley professors.
One of the centers of artistic life in Berkeley at the time was Bishops’ Book Shop. When Park arrived in town he didn’t know anyone, Boas writes. But after hanging out a Bishops for two weeks, Park knew everyone. He formed a close friendship with the Howard family, whose patriarch, John Galen Howard, designed UC Berkeley’s Campanile, Greek Theater, and Sather Gate, among other buildings.
Boas will be speaking about Park on April 12 at 6 pm at University Press Books on Bancroft Way. Berkeleyside recently interviewed Boas about Park’s work, importance, and time in Berkeley.
David Park was the originator of Bay Area Figurative Art, a daring departure from Abstract Expressionism, which was dominant in the 1940s and 50s. Park’s new figuration offered a way to continue beyond Abstract Expressionism by keeping its thickly layered and spacious color field but bringing human beings into it. Park’s integration of figure and ground created a new sense of space and reflected the era’s growing awareness of the interdependence of humankind and nature. This new direction inspired many artists in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere. The continuing freshness and appeal of Park’s work attests to its enduring values.
When Park started to do [his new] figurative painting he was considered an apostate. Why was there resistance to his work? What was he trying to accomplish?
After WWII, Abstract Expressionism had become the first American art movement to hold the world stage, and the pressure to follow its precepts was strong. Its adherents sought to paint non-objectively and opposed the old representation with religious fervor. Park’s post-war figurative work was an unexpected departure from the dominant Abstract Expressionism into a new kind of representation. At first Park’s move was considered a step backward rather than an act of rebellion and a willful step toward his own concepts of space and the pictorial embodiment of his values. But Park insisted on being true to himself and painting what he wanted. Figuration offered him a “way into” the painting.
What are some of the values (main themes) manifest in Park’s work?
Humanism, the everyday, honesty, humbleness, absorption in work, participation of the spectator.
Rather than invoking the heroic in his paintings, Park celebrated everyday life as the highest good, and everyday man as heroic enough. Park said, “I think of painting—in fact all the arts—as a sort of extension of human life. The very same things that we value most, the ideals of humanity, are the properties of the arts. The words that come to mind are many—energy, wisdom, courage, delight, humor, sympathy, gentleness, honesty, peace, freedom—I believe most artists are goaded by a vision of making their work vivid and alive with such qualities.” Artist Richard Diebenkorn stated that Park meant this and other statements about values literally and they are a key to his art.
Can you describe what Park’s work looked like/his methods of painting?
Park used thick paint, wide brushes, and bold gestures and used color to structure the composition. He approached the canvas without a preconceived plan, discovering the painting in the process of painting, and placing forms at the edge of the canvas to give a sense of expansive space. He treated seeing in an unprecedented way: cropping photographically, keeping positive and negative forms in oscillation, minimizing the cues necessary for visual comprehension, and conjuring up several of these elements in a single brushstroke.
His later work often features bathers or nudes. What drew him to those subjects?
In the conformist gray flannel era of the 1950s, at a time when even some artists dressed in business suits, Park’s beach figures made an unexpected cultural statement. They embodied a vision of men and women in nature that was contemporary. Park’s paintings of figures in swimsuits and tee-shirts anticipate the late-twentieth-century American ethos of youthful informality and athleticism. Later the bathing suits fell away, and the eternal and mythic nudes of art history remained.
Why did you choose the Imogen Cunningham photo of Park for the cover?
It’s an outstanding photograph and I liked his intense gaze. The fact that Park is wearing a T-shirt reflects the new informality and lack of pretension that was popular in California and then nationally in the 1950s. Perhaps the photograph captures Park so well because he and Cunningham were friends. In fact, he painted her portrait.
What makes Park’s life and art so fascinating that the subject deserves a biography?
I believe Park’s intrinsic importance as a painter and the continuing esteem in which he is held are reasons that he merits a biography. His highly original work captured the ethos of his time—personal, gestural, interweaving human beings and their place in nature. In addition, his work reflected keen insights into the history and culture of his times, and he worked against the background of important events in the post WWII era—the Cold War, the atomic era, and the beginnings of the conservation movement.
How do you hope the book will add to art history?
I hope the importance of David Park as a trailblazer is established by my examining his paintings and showing how they illustrate his values. I bring new information and form a new theory about Park’s rivalry with Clyfford Still and the two camps that arose at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), from 1946 to 1950. The book argues that New York did not have all the important art developments at the time; the San Francisco Bay Area was also a place where important new art was developed.
Did Berkeley have any influence over Park as a painter?
Upon his arrival in Berkeley at age 18, Park immediately found himself at home in its artistic and intellectual milieu. He lived in Berkeley for many years thereafter and taught at the university from 1955 to 1960. Although he used few identifiable Berkeley locales in his work, he painted groups of people on campus and sometimes used settings that suggest Berkeley, its light, and ambiance. The book also illuminates the rich relationships and connections he had with Berkeley artists and writers of his time, such as Richard and Phyllis Diebenkorn, Mark and Ruth Schorer, Tom and Judy Holland, and Ruth and James Hart.
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