Sunday, October 13, 2013

David Park: California Dreaming

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).
In 1949, a year before Willem de Kooning began Woman I, Park turned his back on the Abstract Expressionist manner he had been practicing since the mid-1940s, destroyed all the abstract pictures still in his possession, and decided to return to the human figure for fresh inspiration.
He later reflected, “As you grow older, it dawns on you that you are yourself – that your job is not to force yourself into a style but to do what you want. I saw that if I would accept subjects, I could paint with more absorption, with a certain enthusiasm for the subject which would allow some of the esthetic qualities such as color and composition to evolve more naturally.”
David Park, Portrait of Hassel Smith, 1951, oil on canvas, 34 x 28 inches (private collection).
Park’s decision was initially questioned by his colleagues – it was called a failure of nerve – but within three years Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn had opted to follow him, and by 1957 the Bay Area Figure Painting had become a nationally recognized movement.
Richard Diebenkorn, Girl Looking at Landscape, 1957, oil on canvas, 59 x 60 inches (Whitney) .
The California School of Fine Arts...Abstract Expressionism...David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn...the Bay Area Figure Painting: The place and the style and the artists’ names tumble forth like a litany recalling the period when painters and sculptors around San Francisco encountered post-war modernism firsthand and established their relationship to it.
Elmer Bischoff, Orange Sweater, 1955, oil on canvas, 48 1/2 x 57 inches (SFMoMA). 
The encounter was focused at CSFA, where Douglas MacAgy became director in 1945 and at once brought to its sleepy academic orientation a sense of the urgency of contemporary art. Between 1945 and 1950 he hired not only Park, Bischoff and Diebenkorn but also, among others, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt. Of the latter three it was Still who became the dominant force at the school and through him it was Abstract Expressionism that became synonymous with contemporary art. Few artists associated with CSFA were unaffected by the new American art, by its emphasis on the gripping realities of paint and gesture and its existential vision of creativity as a moral act. Park was no exception, although what he took from Abstract Expressionism – what he learned of himself while engaging it – is nonetheless evident in pictures he painted after emerging from and rejecting it.
Clyfford Still, Untitled (PH-118), 1947, oil on canvas, 69 x 53 inches (Clyfford Still Museum, © Estate of Clyfford Still). 
We know little of the abstract work itself, as only a handful of the pictures he executed between 1946 and 1949 survive. Despite the lack of visual evidence, however, we do know something of Park’s feeling about his work during that period. Biographer Paul Mills quotes him as saying, “I was concerned with big abstract ideas like vitality, energy, profundity, warmth. They became my gods. They still are. I disciplined myself rigidly to work in ways I hoped might symbolize these ideals. I still hold these ideals today, but I realize that those paintings never, even vaguely, approximated any achievement of my aims. Quite the opposite; what the paintings told me was that I was a hardworking guy who was trying to be important.” To this, Richard Diebenkorn has added, “Park had an utter disdain for the New York School, because he felt New York put style absolutely first.”

“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).
For Abstract Expressionism was an urban style, bred with high ambition in artists’ studios against the background of an initially hostile public and in the immediate presence of transplanted Europeans who had witnessed and participated in the historic flowering of 20th Century modernism. All of which was far removed from the Bay Area, even somewhat incongruous in the CSFA setting where one could stroll in the courtyard at almost any time of the year, enjoy the flowers around the pool, and savor the embrace of light and color everywhere evident in the natural environment surrounding San Francisco Bay.
David Park, Two Bathers, 1958, oil on canvas, 58 x 50 inches (SFMoMA). 
In New York one may have needed myths to survive and anxious competition to grow on, but in San Francisco such an existential strategy was largely academic, a matter of words, art magazine reproductions, and a few outspoken personalities. Ironically, then, it was the soft-spoken Hans Hofmann, a titan among the Abstract Expressionists, a transplanted European New Yorker, and a visiting teacher at Berkeley more than two decades before Park and Bischoff and Diebenkorn got there, who fully grasped and summarized everything that could be said about the Bay Area experience – which he did in a signature 1960 abstract landscape resplendent with light and color, a painting he memorably titled Land of Bliss and Wonder, California.
Hans Hofmann, Land of Bliss and Wonder, California, 1960, oil on canvas, 52 x 60 inches (whereabouts unknown, Photo:  Estate of Han Hofmann). 
The difference between the coasts, between New York and San Francisco and the sensibilities the two cities engendered, is fully apparent in the best figure paintings produced by Willem de Kooning and David Park in the 1950s.
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).
Typically, de Kooning’s women are shredded and demonic, anguished presences articulated with a grimy brush and locked into inhospitable spaces that resemble pictorial combat zones. They have been called earth mothers and sex goddesses, at once alluring and repulsive, symbols of an American ambivalence toward women generally, creatures born of a love/hate relationship between the artist and his dime-store Aphrodite. Whatever, they are leagues removed, esthetically and conceptually, from Park’s figures, men and women walking a quiet street, kids riding bicycles, students on their way to class, young people in swimsuits standing on a beach, drifting in rowboats, playing volleyball. They were painted with a broad and loaded brush, quickly it seems, but with passion and understanding and sympathy for their common humanity, for the simple activities that engage their attention, for the rich texture of light and color that surrounds them, for the ample spaces they comfortably occupy.
Left: David Park, Mother-in-Law, 1954-1955, oil on canvas, 26 x 19 1/2 inches (collection San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Right: David Park, Head, 1959, oil on canvas, 31 5/8 x 25 7/8 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Edith S. and Arthur J. Levin).

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).
And while the human figure provides a starting point and an anchor to sustain the absorption he was looking for, Park’s best paintings never stop with the figure, never become flaccid around the edges or in the interstices between the figures and their surroundings. Their surfaces are everywhere integrated and everywhere vital, yielding in tandem a bonding of form and content that demonstrates the depth of David Park’s understanding of Abstract Expressionism and of modernism generally. That they evolved after his 1949 decision to alter his art so that it would acknowledge the self he came to know as his at that time – that their style came from within rather than from without – equally demonstrates his deep understanding of modern experience itself, not only the autonomy that so importantly defines it, but its pleasurable warmth as well.  
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.


Kyle Gallup said...

Thank you for this post Carl. It hits the spot on many levels for me. I especially liked reading about the developments that took place personally for David Park and his place within a larger history.

I can see that David Park's years as an Abstract Expressionist very much informed his figurative work--not only as you say in his wholeness of the picture that Abstract Expressionism demanded(excuse me if I'm not expressing what you said exactly) but--in his understanding of the fluidity of the IMAGE in relationship to it's meaning and means of discovering it within each work. The paintings internal logic materializes in a big way when looking at them--they are not static or beholden to devices to become whole and integrated. This continues to reinforce my thoughts that abstract and figurative work need not live in different universes.

So many things you say in the piece stand out and I will think about them so more but here's the one I'd like to add to my comment,

"That they evolved after his 1949 decision to alter his art so that it would acknowledge the self he came to know as his at that time – that their style came from within rather than from without."

That's beautiful!

Deborah Bohnert said...

Nice Carl. Good food for thought.

Carl Belz said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Kyle. That abstract versus figurative argument that was so strong in the 1950s--about the high road and all that--may have been a rallying cry of inspiration for some, but it also occluded many of the positive relationships between the two camps and limited their understanding and appreciation of one another--and it's sometimes astonishing how clear those relationships appear today after the dust has settled!

eus said...

Thank you so much for this post. Loved the co-relation between the east and west coast. How AE was able to fuel his work rather than he follow in their footsteps.

About Connie Goldman said...

I enjoyed this, Carl. As a Bay Area artist, I love seeing Park get this well-deserved attention. He was a courageous and great painter, and he continues to elicit awe and lively conversation. What more can you ask?

Rob Anderson said...

Thank you, Carl. The article is excellent with some wonderful examples. Brought me back to my years at UC Berkeley in the early 70's. Only Bischoff was still there of the artists you mention but I studied with Robert Hartman and Erle Loran. They opened up my young eyes to abstraction and the freedom from color restraint as Park demonstrated. I've come back to realism but those "Old Guys" continue to influence and inspire me.

Unknown said...

Carl - There seems to be a larger life-lesson in this beautifully written piece. A man stopping to think and wonder Is this really me? Is this a choice that gives me the widest scope for who I really am? And then having the courage to make a change.

Deborah Barlow said...

This is about so much more than just David Park, and the conversation in the comments speaks to your wider set of issues. As always, a great piece by my favorite art critic. Bravo.

Deborah Barlow said...

This is about so much more than just David Park, and the conversation in the comments speaks to your wider set of issues. As always, a great piece by my favorite art critic. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this article very much. Thank you

Jim Harris

Charles Kessler said...

I just re-read this and I'm again impressed by how masterful the writing is. You really see the big picture and at the same time you're sensitive to the individual paintings. You're the master!

Natch said...

This is truly fine, and the reproductions as well. David Park was my father and it is better than fun to discover websites that I have not seen before!
Natalie Park Schutz

Carl Belz said...

Thank you for that generous comment, Natch. Coming from a place so close to the source makes it especially meaningful.