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David Park - Biography and Legacy

American Painter and Art Educator

Born: March 17, 1911 - Boston, Massachusetts
Died: September 20, 1960 - Berkley, California

Biography of David Park

Early Life

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."

Mature Period

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.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"David Park Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 11 Mar 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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