By Carl Belz
Writer’s note: The following essay was written for the brochure of a 1983 David Park exhibition at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in New York, NY. I have edited and revised it for its iteration here on Left Bank Art Blog.
David Park was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1911 and died of cancer in Berkeley, California in 1960. He never finished high school and did not attend college. He studied briefly at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles but was essentially a self-taught painter. Highly respected by his peers, he taught at the California School of Fine Arts – now the San Francisco Art Institute – between 1946 and 1952 and was a member of the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley between 1955 and 1960.
|David Park teaching at the California School of Fine Arts, ca. 1949 (San Francisco Art Institute Archives, Photo: William Heick).|
|David Park, Portrait of Hassel Smith, 1951, oil on canvas, 34 x 28 inches (private collection).|
|Richard Diebenkorn, Girl Looking at Landscape, 1957, oil on canvas, 59 x 60 inches (Whitney) .|
|Elmer Bischoff, Orange Sweater, 1955, oil on canvas, 48 1/2 x 57 inches (SFMoMA).|
|Clyfford Still, Untitled (PH-118), 1947, oil on canvas, 69 x 53 inches (Clyfford Still Museum, © Estate of Clyfford Still).|
“Big abstract ideas”...[ painted by]... “a hardworking guy trying to be important.” In this modest self assessment in which high ambition yields only ordinary achievement we’re likely to see the crux of David Park’s encounter with the all-or-nothing Abstract Expressionist ethos as it was articulated by Clyfford Still at CSFA and in turn to conclude that in abandoning AE he either quit it or failed it. But I believe Park’s decision went deeper; it entailed an intuitive grasp of what he could and could not use in Abstract Expressionism, a process of selection that in itself marked the coming to maturity of his artistic thought. Concomitant with that process was the further intuition that Abstract Expressionism, however appealing in terms of its urge to freedom and experimentation, was essentially foreign to his artistic temperament, and possibly foreign as well to the time and place where he was teaching and living and making his art.
|David Park, Profile of Lydia, oil on canvas, 1952, 13 1/2 x 15 1/2 inches (collection of Helen Park Bigelow, Natalie Park Schutz and Hackett Mill, San Francisco).|
|David Park, Two Bathers, 1958, oil on canvas, 58 x 50 inches (SFMoMA).|
|Hans Hofmann, Land of Bliss and Wonder, California, 1960, oil on canvas, 52 x 60 inches (whereabouts unknown, Photo: Estate of Han Hofmann).|
|Left: David Park, Rehearsal, c.1949-1950, oil on canvas, 46 x 36 inches (Oakland Museum of California). Right: Willem de Kooning, Woman, I, 1950-52, oil on canvas, 76 x 58 inches (MoMA).|
Park’s world is as different from de Kooning’s as San Francisco is from New York – and just as different in relation to their modern historical sources as the French Fauves were from the German expressionists. But Park reached maturity not via Fauvism but via Abstract Expressionism, the new art of his own generation, which widely and persistently questioned the refinements of French taste, favoring instead an art that was more physical and immediate – an art that was “troublesome,” to use Park’s term. By 1949, however, four years of abstraction left him feeling that the pictures he was making were not his own and that subjects themselves might more meaningfully harbor the troublesome authenticity he sought – and thus did he commit himself to their challenge. Which is not to say he dismissed Abstract Expressionism entirely, far from it, for he took from AE fundamental attitudes having to do with both medium and message.
Richard Diebenkorn wrote in his 1983 appreciation of his friend and colleague that David Park was “in love with oil paint and its potential to become merde.” Park’s best paintings surely bear this out, for their surfaces pulse with spontaneously applied pigment that is indulged in and of itself as an unrefined and sensuous substance. The humanity of the mature pictures is obviously due in part to its figurative subjects, but equally – and in my opinion more deeply – it resonates in the passion and generosity with which Park handled his tools and allowed his medium to sing. In spreading across the full extent of each surface, his handling additionally ensures the pictorial wholeness that Abstract Expressionism demanded.
|David Park, Rowboat, 1958, oil on canvas, 57 x 61 inches (Boston MFA).|
|David Park, Four Men, 1958, oil on canvas, 57 x 92 inches (Whitney).|
Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.