American Painter and Art Educator
Summary of David Park
Shocking the San Francisco art world in 1949, David Park made a dramatic stylistic break. No longer happy to paint compositions of color and abstract form, Park refocused his eye on the human figure in its everyday setting. A leader in what would come to be known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Park, along with his friends Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, painted local landscapes and culture and in so doing offered an alternative to the then dominant Abstract Expressionists.
Having adopted his new subject matter, Park continued to use intense color, unusual perspective, and some degree of abstraction to create paintings with psychological depth and mystery. Inspired by jazz music and friends with Beat poets, Park would himself go on to influence a host of figurative painters in California, including Pop artist David Hockney.
- In order to reintroduce the human element in painting, Park turned to figuration. Never a photorealist painter insisting on strict fidelity, Park embraced the lessons of abstraction to create moody and atmospheric scenes of California life that were responsive to the locale and also spoke to the tradition of European urban abstraction, from the Post-Impressionism of late-19th-century Paris to the Expressionist canvases of early-20th century Germany and Northern Europe.
- A jazz musician himself, many of Park's subjects are musical in nature, but even at his most abstract, one senses that musical rhythms and tones are never far from his mind.
- Using minimal means, Park created paintings with a psychological depth. Not only do the individuals seem to have interior lives, but their estrangements and connections with others and their environments also become apparent.
Progression of Art
Park was teaching at the California School of Fine Art when he painted Untitled (1948) and still working in an Abstract Expressionist style. This was the year before Park had his great conversion to the figurative, but quasi-figurative shapes populate the composition. Indistinct shapes and planes of color intersect the canvas, and fine black lines are vaguely suggestive of human shapes. Deeply inspired by Picasso at this time, Park used a mix of a biomorphic and geometric formations to build a vertical composition of shapes and colors. Like many Abstract Expressionists, he used thick, expressive strokes of paint, allowing them to drip down the canvas.
Given Park's love of music, and especially jazz, Untitled has a certain musical quality to it. While one might sense a musical instrument or musician in the forms, one could also understand it as a whole sensory experience of an audience member or performer. The rhythm of the lines and the transitions between color evoke the abstract qualities of music. Park has already found his unique use of color even at this early stage; the bright, creamy citrus tones and mellow blues are celebratory and vibrant.
Oil on canvas. - Private Collection
When Park destroyed many of his abstract works in 1949, he immediately began work on figurate works, including Rehearsal. In 1950, Rehearsal was exhibited at the Artist Members Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, to the surprise and consternation of his friends, colleagues, and critics. Park's sudden stylistic switch confused and perplexed many, and some thought it was a joke.
The painting depicts the scene of a jazz band rehearsal. Its figures resemble the members of Park's own band at the time, the Studio 13 Jazz band, which included Elmer Bischoff among others. Without making faithful portraits of his band mates, in general the painting captures the warmth and energy of the ensemble. Painted with rich, warm color and creamy, layered paint, the piece is highly personal; it is painted from an unusual perspective: from behind a piano, which was Park's position in the band. The viewer is transported to Park's own experience of playing and loving jazz music. He plays with the arrangement of figures in the space to create a unique point of view; the lines of the piano and upright bass draw the eye towards the flat, orange space of the studio. Many scholars have interpreted these figures as both a nod to and criticism of the California School of Fine Art's obsession with abstraction; all the musicians face the conductor and follow the same tune.
Oil on canvas - Oakland Museum of California
By 1952, David Park was well into the swing of what would become known as Bay Area Figurative Painting. He continued to depict everyday scenes, objects, and people with genuine affection and warmth; attuned to the everyday, Park painted new perspectives to open the viewers' eyes to scenes that may otherwise go unnoticed.
Park used a palette knife instead of a traditional paintbrush to thickly apply the paint and build up the intense orange-yellow that dominates the painting. A single woman stands by a bus stop, perhaps having just left the bus. Her persimmon-colored jacket matches the bus behind her, in the magic of everyday coincidences. The vertical lines between the bus windows draw one's eye to the background, where softly depicted figures sit on the bus, continuing on their shared journey. While the figures of the bus are together in a shared space, they are also separate; each deep in their own thoughts and aspirations.
Art critic John Seed observes, "David Park's The Bus ... struck me as having an underlying theme of individualism. As a woman walks away from a bus she goes her own direction while the bus carries its group of riders on to the next stop. For Park, who a few years before had chosen figuration when every other ambitious modern artist was painting abstractly, the theme of being on one's own had a special resonance." Park's contemporary Steven Pepper once said that "he is the son of a prominent clergyman, and carries on the intellectual Emerson-like attitude, together with a bit of rebellion which has kept him a painter against hard odds, and with a lot of emotional insight." The Bus celebrates a coalition of individualism and collectivism; while Park celebrates the company and achievements of his peers, he ultimately marches to the beat of his own drum.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Boston Street Scene
While the West Coast provided Park his spiritual and artistic home in many ways, his 1954 painting Boston Street Scene demonstrates his continued connection to his hometown. But here, too, we see Park using an unusual viewpoint and separating the figures so they never quite coalesce into a group or crowd.
In the bottom right corner of the canvas, one can see a young man's upper shoulders and head as he walks along the street, eyes cast directly forwards on his path. On the other side of the street, walking on a diagonal trajectory across the canvas, three thin, upright figures, evenly spaced from each other, also walk alone in their thoughts, their shadows casting light blue shapes over the road. They are dramatically set against a vividly rich red building, bathed in warm yellow evening sunlight.
Art critic Deborah Solomon describes the painting as "an outdoor picture veering inwards, it shows a young man wandering the city lost in thought, its skewed angles and agitated paint surface somehow amplifying the noise inside his head." Typical of Park's approach to painting, the scene is in many ways nondescript and pedestrian. The figures wear casual, everyday clothes, and the street is typical and featureless. Despite the every-day-ness of the scene, the paint application and deep colors create the sense that, in critic Sanford Schwarz's words, "the people in them have psychologically full presences, and we are pulled into the reflective spirit of the images." Personal perspective and expressionistic color create the mood and emotion in the scene.
Park felt that in his earlier Abstract Expressionist work, he was trying too hard to consciously focus on creating new styles and compositions and, thereby, ignoring the human element of painting. Only by accepting the human figure into his painting, could he organically find an aesthetic. As Park himself described it: "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 aesthetic qualities such as color and composition to evolve more naturally." By returning to the figure, color and form became more expressionistic.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
In contrast to the urban scenes of New York painters, Park painted "the good life" of California - full of family, rolling hills, beaches, good food, and sunlight. Park's paintings focused on the common man and woman and their interactions with the world around them. He especially celebrated the overlooked vitality and magic of the natural world. Throughout the 1950s, Park came back to the subject of bathers, swimmers, and rowers again and again; these figures suspend their everyday, working lives for a joyful few hours in a watery realm.
In Rowboat, Park's rowers sit within a swirling haze of earthy browns, fresh greens, sunny yellows, and blazing blues. Only a soft outline separates the men from their surroundings, suggesting a oneness with nature instead of being separate from it. Park's biographer Nancy Boas argues hat his later paintings were working at "integrating people and nature and paint." In the last few years of the 1950s, Park's figures became more and more soft and blurred, becoming hazy, almost dreamlike, figures. Yet despite this move toward more abstraction, they were still everyday people doing everyday tasks. His increasingly dynamic and blurry use of paint provided an emotional enhancement for the figures he depicted.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Lydia Drinking Coffee
By 1960, David Park's physical condition had rapidly deteriorated, and he could only paint lying on a specially built sofa. It was at this point that Park decide to make another departure; stepping away from his beloved oil paint for the first time in decades, Park began to work in gouache on paper instead. Unlike oil paint, gouache painting must be done quickly and applied rather thinly, as if it dries too thickly it can crack. Such necessary rapidity meant that Park could keep up with his prolific array of ideas and plans for works; he could complete at least one painting a day, despite his extreme pain and low mobility.
What came out of this new medium was some of Park's simplest and most intimate works. His figures, which had always been warm and universal depictions of humanity, became more raw, more emotional, and highly personal. According to art historian Paul Mills, "In the presence of the reality of disease, suffering and death, Park's figures stir into wakefulness and consciousness; they descend into the arena of human feeling and become an expression of Park's own struggle with mortality."
Lydia Drinking Coffee depicts David's wife, or Deedee as she was affectionately known. Throughout their marriage, the two battled illness, depression, and unemployment, as well as celebrated a wide circle of friends, fulfilling work, a beautiful house, and two beloved daughters. Like so many of Park's works, the moment in which he captures Lydia is a simple one: sitting at the kitchen table and drinking coffee. She leans on one elbow, deep in thought, staring forward. She is in her internal, private world, yet she is observed and loved by an artistic eye, rendering her in soft, contemplative mustard and pink. Park's friend Ruth Shorer recalled that in his final months "one afternoon, he had been overcome with feeling at the sight of Lydia, dressed in a slip, sitting in front of a window near his bedside with the light behind her. As he had been awestruck by the beauty of Lydia's backlit form in her shimmery slip years before in Boston, so he was again." It was in the simplest of everyday moments that Park saw the greatest love and beauty.
Gouache on paper - Private Collection
Biography of David Park
Childhood and Education
Like so many West Coast American artists of the mid-20th century, David Park actually came from the very different world of the industrious East. David Park was born to parents Mary Turner and Charles Edward Park, a highly regarded Unitarian minister, in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1911. The Park family was typical of the Boston middle class - hardworking, serious, and straightforward.
Of the Park children, three boys and a girl, David was the oddball. The two other boys, Dick and Ted, were sporty and popular, and his sister Marion was dedicated to the church. They had varied interests and hobbies, and did well enough at school. David, on the other hand, separated himself in his activities, burying himself in painting, drawing, playing the piano, creating puppet shows, and exploring the backstreets of Boston. His enthusiasm for exploration sometimes infected his younger brother Ted, who joined him on adventures in the city and in the woods. He had a distinct disinterest in the Unitarian Church, but was otherwise a boundlessly enthusiastic and creative, if often solitary, child.
The young David found school dull and restricting and did very poorly. Unhappy with his progress, his parents sent him to boarding school in Connecticut. Here, he was even more miserable, becoming languid and uninterested. After summer holidays, he would come back alive, but as soon as school term came again, he slid back into a depression. He began to dream of leaving school and going west.
Education and Early Work
Throughout his childhood, David regularly visited his aunt Edith Truesdell in New Hampshire before she moved to California, and the two became close. Truesdell, an artist and art instructor, encouraged David's creativity. When she saw David's misery at school, she suggested he came out West to visit her. Worried for him, his parents reluctantly agreed. Aged seventeen, he was whisked away by Aunt Edith in her Model T Ford to California, where he enrolled in the Otis Art Institute for a year. Here he began his formal artist education. Park then moved to Berkeley, lured by the growing number of artists congregating there. He shared living space with another young artist, Gordon Newell, who introduced Park to his sister Lydia. The two quickly fell in love; by nineteen they were married and by twenty-two they had two daughters, Natalie and Helen. Lydia would become Park's lifelong partner and was absolutely instrumental in his success.
Although he no longer was receiving formal artistic education at this age, in Park's late teens and early twenties he had several artistically informative experiences that shaped him for the years to come. Despite the Great Depression, Berkeley's artistic community was flourishing. In 1930, Henri Matisse visited the Bay Area, and the young David Park found himself at a lunch attended by the august French artist, who told the Californians to "Talk Less. Work More." This ethos became instrumental to Park's own approach to art. He was also fascinated by the 1931 visit of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to Northern California; their use of color and joyful appreciation of nature became inspirations for Park.
In this period, David painted some murals in the Bay Area and taught art in schools. He had a few solo shows of his work in the early 1930s, but nothing stuck, and he began to struggle with what to do. His painting was influenced by Pablo Picasso and the Abstract Expressionists at this time, and was moderately well reviewed in small circles, but it did not make a huge impact. He briefly even left the West Coast and returned to Boston to take up a teaching opportunity, but the move was short-lived. With first the Great Depression then the outbreak of the Second World War, Park struggled to find work. He worked a night job at the General Cable Company for many years, where he sustained a serious injury to his back.
In 1943, Park had a breakthrough; he gained a teaching post at the California School of Fine Art. To supplement this pay he continued to work at the General Cable Company throughout the early 1940s but threw his energy and enthusiasm into the art school. The more he taught, the more he was reintegrated into the artistic community. At this precise time, CSOFA was a hotbed of new artistic talent, among both the students and teachers. Park became close friends and colleagues of other influential California artists, including Elmer Bischoff, Hassel Smith, and Richard Diebenkorn. Many of the teachers shared a love of abstraction, and Park became an important fixture in this circle. He even played in a jazz band with other members of the faculty - the Studio 13 Jazz Band - yet Park became more and more dissatisfied with abstraction. His friend Bischoff recalled, Park "was keen about Abstract Expressionism as long as it had the immediacy and tangibility and goopy sensuous arrangement of forms, but when it got into the very serious 'views of the cosmos' he didn't go along with that."
In 1949, David and Lydia gathered up most of his abstract work and took it to the dump. Park no longer wanted to work in this style; he desired warmth, liveliness and spontaneity, which he felt must be explored through the figure. Park wanted to make a painting which was "an extension of human life," which showed the human nature of California. He said, "I believe that we are living at a time that overemphasizes the need of newness, of furthering concepts." In concentrating on nature instead of abstraction, Park felt that the painting, instead of the artist, became the crucial focus.
When Park exhibited his painting Rehearsal in this year, his fellow artists were astounded and often unimpressed. "I thought it was a joke," recalled artist Frank Lobdell. "The idea of somebody making such a drastic switch from one style to another just didn't occur to you." Yet this did not seem to affect Park's confidence in his own work. In fact, in 1951, Park's Kids on Bikes (1950-51) won the San Francisco Art Association Annual competition. Two abstract artists, James McCray and Glenn Wessels, awarded the prize to Park, with Wessels noting that the painting's "color dynamic seemed to balance this deep perspective." He also noted the painting's distinction as "practically the only non-objective painting in the whole San Francisco Art Association Annual of that year which was not in the approved style of 'non-objectivism'."
Such official recognition galvanized artists, and the attention and momentum spurred many of Park's colleagues to consider more seriously the new artistic direction Park was offering. Smith, Bischoff, and Deibenkorn followed Park's lead, and the four men would meet in his studio almost every day to paint and talk. Continuing the Action Painting of the Abstract Expressionists without the abstraction, these artists preceded the free-natured, jazz-orientated world of the Beats to come.
In the early 1950s, Hassel Smith was dismissed from the school, and Bischoff and Park resigned in support. Yet again, Park was unemployed and working demeaning, low-paid jobs to support his family. His wife, Lydia, decided to go back to work herself at this time. This was a crucial intervention, which allowed David to continue painting full time, and in 1955 he took a post at the University of California Berkeley. Here, his figurative art would flourish, and he took even more influence from jazz music, mixing mainly with the Music department faculty and joining another jazz band.
By the late 1950s, Park was at his most prolific and successful. In 1957, he took part in the seminal exhibition Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting at the Oakland Gallery, which solidified the group.
Interrupting this joyful work was Park's increasingly debilitating back pain. When he could no longer climb the stairs to his studio, some of Park's friends and colleagues built an easel for him so he could work from his living room. In 1959 and 1960, he underwent operations for his increasing complications, but in February 1960, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the pelvis. Park was frustrated and angry but resolute that he would leave the hospital and continue "painting and fighting" for as long as possible, surrounded by his family.
In his last few months, Park created some of his most creative, warm, and joyful works. He continued to paint, sitting and then lying down, in gouache and felt tip. He painted large, expansive canvases and stretches of paper until he could no longer hold the brush. He passed away in September of 1960, aged only 49. He was survived by his wife Lydia, his two daughters, as well as his father and Aunt Edith. In Edith's diary, she simply wrote "David died last night, well, that's that." David's daughter Helen later said of his aunt's poignant response, it "says something someone else might take pages to express." Its simplicity and humanity were things which David Park himself prized above all else.
The Legacy of David Park
As one art critic put it: "Somehow he made peace with abstraction, but he had to do it by putting human presence, in all its beautiful imperfection, into the forefront once again." Park is now seen as an absolutely integral figure in the rapidly changing face of West Coast art after World War II.
He was part of, if not arguably the originator of, a movement which linked the love of Abstract Expressionism with the iconoclastic and rebellious jazz-orientated Beats who came after. The Bay Area Figurative Painters were the natural forefathers of the Beat poets and painters, with their discontent for the old world; they even shared a vital exhibition space The Six Gallery, which was run by the California School of Fine Art. Poet Allen Ginsberg performed Howl there for the first time in 1955, in the exact same space where David Park had exhibited with the Bay Area Figurative Painters in 1952 (then named the King Ubu Gallery). Many of the Beats mixed with the Bay Area painters and took heed of their ideas and styles, all of which truly stemmed from David Park's decisive moment of change in 1949.
David Park brought about a marriage of abstraction with something warmer and livelier. His paintings were very much the creation of a passionate, rebellious, family-loving man; they show vitality and joie de vivre, a love for the "good life" of California, and the beauty of everyday scenes and recollections. In many ways, this idealised and slightly naïve image of California influenced later painters such as David Hockney, who's brightly colored and flatly abstract bather scenes in California are strikingly similar to Park's own. Park's movement is still very influential on contemporary artists such as Suhas Bhuijbal, who is deeply grounded in the figurative.