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 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