When I was in high school, beginning to venture on my own to galleries, I saw an exhibition that fascinated and excited me at the time and remains with me today. Many decades later, I can see some of the bold, minimally rendered figures in the paintings on view, conjured up with big, fierce brushstrokes, schematic modeling, and saturated color. They reminded me of the German Expressionist works I was beginning to know about (and respond to, as teenagers do), but they seemed much more immediate and surprising. As a student at Music and Art (long before it merged with Performing Arts), I was aware of the attention being paid to adventurous abstraction in New York—one of the painting teachers was famous for having studied with Hans Hofmann. I’d seen Life magazine articles about “Jack the Dripper” and his colleagues, and I’d heard my parents and their friends, very modest collectors of American Modernism, arguing about their merits; “Picasso, of course, can draw,” I remember one of them saying, as he dismissed Abstract Expressionism wholesale. I didn’t think I agreed with him, but neither was I yet fully up to the rigor of Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline, so the fact that here were paintings as daring and loose as any up-to-the-minute abstractions that also included recognizable images seemed startling and important.

The show was “David Park,” at Staempfli Gallery. My interest was strengthened, somewhat later, by a group show there, “Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, David Park,” which introduced me to two other artists who followed a related path. After that, I watched for exhibitions of what I had learned was “Bay Area Figuration,” although it wasn’t easy to see Park and his colleagues in New York, apart from occasional group shows at the Whitney. Most impressive, as I recall, was a fairly substantial Park solo exhibition at Staempfli, which I now know was held in 1961 and was followed three years later (according to a slim catalogue that, miraculously, I still have) by a survey of seven California painters: Bischoff, Diebenkorn, Park, and others. Park, who I later learned had led the West Coast shift to figuration, remained my favorite.

Since those first encounters, Park’s robust, light-struck figure groups have continued to demand my attention whenever I come upon them—which, except on the West Coast, has not been frequently, even when you discount the years that I lived in countries where contemporary California painting simply did not exist. Now there is “David Park: A Retrospective,” a full-scale tribute organized by Janet Bishop, Chief Curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.1 The exhibition presents the artist whole, from his earliest, rather tentative forays into Modernism to the powerful works of his last decade—the fierce paintings that burned themselves into my mental image bank and galvanized his peers and colleagues in San Francisco. That last decade, sadly, was also the entire decade of Park’s mature working life. Born in Boston in 1911, he moved to California at seventeen, living and working in the Bay Area (apart from a five-year teaching stint in Boston) until his 1960 death from cancer in Berkeley.

An accomplished, classically trained pianist, Park was largely self-taught as a painter, although he drew seriously from a very young age (he apparently declared his ambition to become an artist at eleven). After moving to Los Angeles to live with relatives, he took some advanced courses at the Otis Arts Institute, quit, and moved to Berkeley. Far more important was the influence of an artist aunt, the Berkeley arts community, an apprenticeship to an important sculptor, and encounters with artists who visited or taught at Berkeley, including Henri Matisse, Hans Hofmann, and Diego Rivera. Park’s precocious abilities were noticed early on. He began exhibiting and teaching in his early twenties.

As installed in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, where “David Park” began its tour in June, the show introduced us to the young painter through works on paper and prints made in 1933 and 1934, when he had been married for a few years and was the father of two daughters, teaching art and participating in the New Deal’s Public Works of Art Project. The fluid, playful images, some of workmen and some with biblical subjects, have the stylishness of New Yorker magazine cartoons of the era, with a strong admixture of social consciousness. Park was awarded a few mural commissions during the Depression years, the most ambitious a hundred-foot-long Allegory of Music (1936) for the music room of Mills College, Oakland. The exhibition’s single panel from the vast project is vaguely Pompeiian, with generous figures in classicizing tunics against a red background. The frieze-like composition is most satisfying for the way the sturdy limbs of the bare-breasted, music-making nymphs chain across the long, horizontal space; the bare breasts, however, caused the all-women’s college to reject the scheme.

Park’s paintings of the late 1930s reveal a young man seeking his voice, trying out a range of compositions with stylized figures in geometric settings, with echoes of Mexican muralism and Picasso. The figures tend to be ample and rather generalized, with massive hands, while the cubic buildings in the backgrounds don’t always take their place, spatially, in the larger context. The most striking and articulate of these early efforts is Self-Portrait Painting His Wife (Painter with Palette and Model) (ca. 1937), which shows a pair of half-length protagonists and a painting in progress on an easel, animated by play of the implied spaces among them. Everything is pressed close together, as if trapped by the tight boundaries of the canvas; there’s a lot of compressed energy in a zig-zagging yellow zone between the painter’s tipped face and his wife Lydia’s raised elbow, echoed by the blonde hair of all the figures, “real” and “depicted.” The painter, Lydia, and the Picasso-inflected, brightly hued image in the picture within the picture are all vividly characterized. The unfinished portrait is very sweet. Lydia looks bored. A glamorous Park, head at a coy angle, gazes from beneath lowered lids; the phrase “bedroom eyes” comes to mind. Oddly, in a painting with mainly naturalistic, if intensified, colors, he appears to be wearing lipstick and nail polish. Puzzling as this is, Self-Portrait Painting His Wife is most notable for its paint handling—more sensuous, less controlled, and more assured than just about any other work of the period, a prefiguration of what will come.

Sensuous paint handling persists through the 1940s, while Park’s imagery becomes increasingly responsive to Synthetic Cubism’s translation of the world around us into large, flat, crisp-edged organic shapes, loosely combined into expansive compositions. There’s sometimes a flavor of Joan Miró and sometimes a little too much naturalism uncomfortably imposed on the Cubist simplifications. The works look rather provincial and a little second-hand, apart from their suave paint application, but they are also very much of their moment. I kept thinking about such correlations to New York developments, probably unknown to Park, as Adolph Gottlieb’s first Pictographs, from the early 1940s, with their fragmented, shorthand facial features and body parts arranged on roughly indicated grids, or Gottlieb’s friend David Smith’s sculptures of billiard players, their bodies and the playing surface flattened into rounded and sharp-edged planes oddly similar to those in Park’s paintings.

As the 1940s progressed, Park was more daring in his treatment of the figure, slicing and combining profiles into structures that teeter on the brink of abstractness, but also depicting flattened but fairly naturalistic birds, sometimes in the same picture. By the late 1940s, he was painting abstractly, moving his medium around with great accomplishment. But while he appears to have been confident about how to paint, he seems to have been far less certain about what to paint. The exhibition’s few abstractions of the period seem to have been generated less by internal imperatives than by then-prevailing notions about the necessity and superiority of abstraction—convictions regularly affirmed on the East Coast, in the Cedar Tavern and The Club and among the Abstract Expressionists and their circle, and widely disseminated. Park’s abstractions share the palette and touch of the ambiguous Self-Portrait Painting His Wife of the previous decade, but lack its intensity.

Park knew it. Details vary, but sometime early in 1950—exactly when is not known—he and Lydia loaded as many of his abstract canvases as would fit into their 1935 Ford and consigned them to the dump. This dramatic act liberated him, giving him license to change radically his conception of what a painting could be. As he explained in 1952, “I believe the best painting America has produced is the current non-objective direction. However I often miss the sting that I believe a more descriptive reference to some fixed subject can make. Quite often, even the very fine non-objective canvases seem to me so visually beautiful that I find them insufficiently troublesome, not personal enough.”

After 1950, Park was the Park of the fiercely and gorgeously painted, vernacular, all-American figures that established and sustain his reputation—images with plenty of sting, that are wholly personal, and, especially in the last years of his too-short life, troublesome in their sheer insistence and urgent paint application. The paintings of the early 1950s are often like Raymond Carver short stories: seemingly straightforward visions of people going about their everyday lives—walking on the street, attending a cocktail party, shopping at a market, or simply coming close to us, as if about to pass us on a crowded sidewalk—with a twist. There’s nothing straightforward about the way energetically brushed, full-bore color both creates and threatens to subsume the figures. In The Bus (ca. 1952), a glowing, orange-gold plane vibrates against a half-length figure’s minimally suggested orange coat. A row of rectangles populated by sketchy heads, at the top of the canvas, snaps the picture in and out of reference, explaining the title. Something similar happens in the smaller, economical Two Boys Walking (1954), in which a very large, shadowed male face looms against blocks of varied greens, while the space is suddenly expanded by a much smaller figure at his shoulder, suggested only by two strokes of denim blue, a rectangle of blue-green, and patches of tan and brown face and hair. The compressed space and the way the figures press towards us, like people who stand too close when holding conversations, add an invigorating overtone of unease. Park confronts us with his images, pushing us away by giving us no place to stand, while at the same time filling our field of vision so aggressively that we become slightly uncomfortable. The cropped snapshot views and the zooming distances can make these paintings seem cinematic or dependent on photographs, but there’s no evidence that Park ever took, much less used, photos for his art. Blame the zeitgeist. In any event, Park’s lush gestures always return us to the fact of paint on a surface and the presence of his hand.

Occasionally, we catch glimpses of Park’s interest in other artists. There’s a flavor of Matisse in the harmonies and internal rhythms he creates among like and unlike elements—as in the play of the verticals of neckties, lapels, a fragment of striped dress, and distant figures in Tournament (ca. 1953), each drawn or painted slightly differently, from assertive stroke to delicate line. The tipped tabletop that occupies much of Table with Fruit (1951), and the way everyone and everything is pushed to the leftover spaces at the perimeter have echoes of Pierre Bonnard, an association challenged by the density of Park’s unbroken expanses of paint.

By the mid-1950s, Park was in full command of his new idiom. Still lifes of banal objects—a hairbrush and comb, a hammer and pliers—seen up close, have the immediacy and seductive touch of Édouard Manet’s little paintings of peonies and asparagus, absent their elegance. A sink, seen head-on, is a just plain terrific near-abstraction of horizontal bands of deep ochre, off-white, and pale, streaky celadon, shifted into the quotidian by casually indicated faucets and a bar of soap. A group of uncompromising, frontal, close-up portrait heads, including an owlish Imogen Cunningham behind big glasses and an affectionate, slap-dash Richard Diebenkorn, have the hectic audacity of German Expressionist figure paintings; so do a gray-haired man with a mustache and heavy-rimmed glasses and an apparently rapidly executed portrait of a San Francisco collector, with a brutal slash of red lipstick.

The last galleries of the show, as installed in Fort Worth, were dazzling. One large space was devoted to nudes, bathers, and people in boats. With assured, full-arm strokes of a large brush and a faultless sense of tone and color, Park gives us men and boys on the beach in strong light; hefty figures in boats against explosive backgrounds that suggest vast space and the movement of water; and agile women in bathing suits. The women in Two Bathers (1958) turn and gesture in low, afternoon light, their movements and the moment magically evoked by sweeps of luminous blues, ochres, and browns, anchored by judiciously placed geometric areas of white and a few ferociously intelligent notes of red and pink. The women, one turned away, pressing her hands to her lower back, the other in three-quarter view, raising a towel behind her, are wholly convincing, three-dimensional beings who move easily in space, but if we even briefly stop concentrating on the associative power of Park’s oversized brush marks, we discover an impressive abstraction. Other works, no less compelling, are less equivocal, such as the hieratic, bathing-suited pair, Standing Couple (1958), with their nearly identical poses and their sturdy shoulders and the planes of their torsos rendered with slashing strokes of light and dark. Even more direct is Standing Male Nude in Shower (1955–57), a ruddy, backlit body framed by radiant blues that we identify as shower curtain and tub. The expressively drawn figure seems poised, tense, and vulnerable, all at once.

Park’s works of the late 1950s are among his most audacious and unfettered, as if he had—rightly—gained full confidence in his ability to walk the tightrope between potent allusion and expressive gesture. The two figures concentrating on their books in Women at a Table (1959) are suggested by a few authoritative brushstrokes, modeled with unpredictable color oppositions, and isolated against a brushy, radiant ochre ground. Our attention toggles between the introspective, intimate image and the opulent paint as paint. The pared-down, startling Nudes and Ocean (1959) suggests a burgeoning interest in more varied paint handling and even greater liberties with the figure. It’s an immensely provocative picture, but, tragically, we’ll never know how—or if—Park would have developed this theme. The last works in the show, painted in 1960, when he was very ill, in pain, and unable to stand at the easel, are bold, loose, brilliantly colored gouaches on paper that rehearse his preferred subjects: heads, nudes, bathers, vernacular figures. A digital reproduction allowed us to view Untitled (The Scroll) (1960), thirty feet of vivid, interlocking images encapsulating memories of places and events important to him since childhood, which he drew with felt-tip markers at the end of his life. (The real thing will be included in the showing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.) Neither the gouaches nor the scroll are the equal of Park’s strongest canvases, but their energy and freshness is astonishing, making us regret his early death even more.

There’s a handsome, informative catalogue and a coda: drawings by Park and his circle, the artists influenced by his commitment to figuration—Bischoff, Diebenkorn, Frank Lobdell, and Manuel Neri, among others—made when they shared models and worked side by side. It’s eye-testing and fascinating. But so is the entire Park retrospective.

1 “David Park: A Retrospective” was on view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth from June 2–September 22, 2019. It will next be seen at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, Michigan (December 21, 2019–March 15, 2020), and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (April 11–September 7, 2020).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 2, on page 48
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