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Bay Area Figurative Movement Collage

Bay Area Figurative Movement

Started: 1950
Ended: 1970
Bay Area Figurative Movement Timeline
"I have found that in accepting and immersing myself in subject matter I paint with more intensity and that the 'hows' of painting are more inevitably determined by the 'whats.' I believe that my work has become freer of arbitrary mannerisms... "
1 of 7
David Park
"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."
2 of 7
David Park
"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. With subjects, the difference is that I feel a natural development of the painting rather than a formal, self-conscious one. As a person, I have nothing in common with someone like Mondrian - he was an inventor, I am not; I love things."
3 of 7
David Park
"Art ought to be a troublesome thing."
4 of 7
David Park
"My concern was to use the language of the abstract expressionists, the gesture of the pigment, and somehow put it together to represent the human figure, to restate classical subjects. I built figures out of the pigment gestures themselves."
5 of 7
Nathan Oliveira
"[T]he visible facts of the paint on the canvas clarify and refine the painter's feelings."
6 of 7
Elmer Bischoff
"After thirty years of fascination with the figure, I realize that the first drawing or sculpture created by man was in reference to himself and how he saw himself. The human figure is inexhaustible in its ability to convey a tremendous variety of ideas. For me, this is a continuous process in which I find that I am not attempting to work toward a conclusion."
7 of 7
Manuel Neri

Summary of Bay Area Figurative Movement

The work of the Bay Area Figurative Movement represents an important moment in the development of abstract painting after the Second World War, when artists such as David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, and Elmer Bischoff - all based in the Bay Area of San Francisco - reincorporated subject-matter into their work in defiance of the pure abstraction favored by the so-called New York School: Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, et al. Named after an exhibition held at the Oakland Museum of Art in 1957, and working in a range of genres, from landscape painting to portraiture, the Bay Area Figurative artists created a body of work which is both a paean to local landscape and culture and represents a formal development of global significance within modern art.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • The work of the Bay Area Figurative Movement arguably signifies the most significant and subtle challenge to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism in post-Second World War North-American art. If the revolt of the Pop Artists was defined by a contrarian embrace of the superficial, artists such as David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Richard Diebenkorn embraced the spirit of abstraction while turning to landscapes, figures, and contemporary settings in which their compositions could be grounded.
  • The Bay Area Figurative Movement was widely seen as the first significant North-American art movement to be based on the West Coast. With their sunlit terraces, moody seascapes, and atmospheric city scenes, the artists of the Bay Area created work which was both intensely responsive to locale and redolent of a whole tradition of European urban abstraction: from the Post-Impressionism of late-nineteenth-century Paris to the Expressionist canvases of early-twentieth-century Berlin and Northern Europe.
  • Just as East-Coast painters of the 1950s-60s such as Jane Freilicher were associated with a community of poets - in Freilicher's case the New York School of Frank O' Hara et al - so the Bay Area Figurative artists responded to the literary culture of their home city as well as its enveloping art scene. Writers such as Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer gravitated around the group, which was also influenced by the West Coast Beat scene, an infusion of genres and media epitomizing the boundary-defying spirit of the era.

Artworks and Artists of Bay Area Figurative Movement

Progression of Art

Kids on Bikes

Artist: David Park

David Park's seminal painting shows a boy in three-quarter profile clasping the handles of a bike. His skin matches the glowing orange of the track stretching off behind him, the stripes on his shirt echoing the curves of the handlebars. To the right, a second boy pedals away, his figure picked out in black, white, and red, an elongated form complemented by the long white railing to his side. In 1951, Kids on Bikes won the San Francisco Art Association Annual competition, which had a great impact on the regional art scene, effectively launching the Bay Area Figurative Movement.

Kids on Bikes might be seen as appropriating the emotive impact of Abstract Expressionism for figurative art. The extreme cropping of the image, and the foreshortening of perspective, mean that the two figures seem to occupy an internal, imaginative realm rather than an external three-dimensional space. That non-realistic effect - notwithstanding the 'figurative' style - is heightened by the use of intense, non-naturalistic color, again owing something to Abstract Expressionism. The uniformity of color clarifies the mood of the piece, epitomizing what art critic Michael Fried calls Park's use of color for the purposes of emotional "absorption". The exaggerated size of the second boy's rear bike-wheel has led some critics to posit a Freudian interpretation of the work as dealing with adolescent sexual awakening. Certainly, both figures convey self-absorption and anxiety, while the naïve formal approach seems to mimic their pubescent awkwardness.

One of the abstract artists who awarded the San Francisco Art Association prize to Kids on Bikes, Glenn Wessels, noted that the painting was the only one they had judged which was neither realist nor Abstract Expressionist in style. Park's unique combination of figurative subject-matter and non-objective treatment would define the early approach of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. At the same time, he brought an inimitable informality to his painting, drawing the viewer in with his warmth of color, closeness of focus, and everyday subject matter.

Oil on canvas - The Regis Collection, Minneapolis


Orange Sweater

Artist: Elmer Bischoff

Bischoff's famous painting uses planes of varying cool colors to suggest a scene awash with light, as if the element of air itself had become palpable. The figure positioned slightly below the central point of the image seems to be underwater, submerged in light, her form blurred while her dark hair and downward posture convey a mood of self-absorption and isolation. Her orange sweater becomes the point of focus and fulcrum of the painting's energies, drawing out the touches of yellow and orange which appear elsewhere, and focusing the viewer's attention on another figure, further back, wearing a mustard colored shirt. The blank ovoid of this figure's face suggests that it might be a mannequin, perhaps posed and leaning against a blackboard.

Bischoff's Orange Sweater is seen as one of the early masterpieces of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. The most obvious point of reference is Edward Hopper's interior scenes, which often contain isolated single figures, and generate the same impression of sub-aquatic isolation. The pearly light of Bischoff's Californian interior, whose luminosity pervades every inch of the room, does not quite offset a similar feeling. As the poet and art critic John Yau puts it, Bischoff "comes out of the tradition of American painting that includes Ryder and Hopper, both of whom believed that loneliness was an inescapable condition."

In the decade following the composition of Orange Sweater, Bischoff's style evolved. He began producing large-scale seascapes, bringing a symbolic complexity to his work, inspired by Albert Pinkham Ryder and the music of Richard Wagner. Pieces such as Figure at Window with Boat (1964), showing a woman looking out across a turbulent red and black marine-scape, seem to reflect the turbulent cultural mood of the early 1960s, while Figure, Boat, Clouds (1971) is reduced to just a few compositional elements, each of which takes on an almost mythic, archetypal quality.

Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Art


Untitled (Standing Figure)

Artist: Manuel Neri

Manuel Neri's expressionistic sculpture resembles a statue from antiquity in its partial erasure of limbs and appendage, as if it were an ancient artefact bearing the ravages of time. But the bright enamel paint that blotches and spills across its surface conveys a contrasting feeling of vitality, also creating a dynamic surface texture, animated by the gestural brushwork.

Among the Bay Area Figurative artists, Neri was the only major sculptor. He worked in plaster, an inexpensive and pliant material that allowed him to both build and subtract his forms. In essence, this material became his equivalent of paint as wielded by the expressionistic artist, allowing an emotionally-invested, tactile composition process that also took on more direct painterly aspects: as in his use of enamel paint on the surface of this work. Neri created a series of uniquely intense and compelling figurative forms during the heyday of the second-generation Bay Area Figurative Movement. As the art critic Hilton Kramer notes of this piece, "a basically painterly impulse may be seen to govern this sculpture even before the first touch of pigment is applied to its surface, [which] gives the work a very individual dynamism."

In its evident influence from classical statuary, and in its application of the techniques of post-abstract figuration to the realm of sculpture, Neri's work represents a vital addition to the Bay Area style of the 1950s-60s. Still working at 88, he is now a celebrated and garlanded modern American artist.

Plaster with enamel - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Standing Man with Hands in Belt

Artist: Nathan Oliveira

The elongated form of Nathan Oliveira's Standing Man is set against a muted background whose division into two shades of light brown generates the subtle suggestion of a horizon-line. The irregular thickness of the man's legs enhances the sense of exaggerated perspective. Tapering down, they draw the viewer's attention to a bright green rhomboid plane beneath, whose presence draws out the lighter green overlaying the man's left leg and hip. Similarly, the patch of sandy brown permeating his upper torso melds with the higher background plane, as if human form and sky were interpenetrating. The cumulative impression, enhanced by the scratching and scuffing of the thick paint layers, is of a subtle and affecting isolation.

Part of what has been called the bridge generation of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Nathan Oliveira expanded the scope of the movement in both subject-matter and media. Born in Oakland to Portuguese parents, his 1950s-60s work drew partly on the example of European figurative Expressionism. He was particularly influenced by the German painter Max Beckmann, studying under Beckmann during a summer course at Mills College in the Bay Area, just before the German artist's death in 1950. Of Beckmann's work, Oliveira has stated, "[t]here was a power that was emanating from his painting [...] and I wanted this." Critical consensus on Oliveira's own work attributes a similar kind of power, with New York Times art critic William Grimes describing Oliveira's paintings as "psychologically charged canvases that explored human isolation and alienation."

While many Bay Area artists saw their work as moving beyond the 1940s-50s North-American tradition of Abstract Expressionism, Oliveira reached back to a longer, European-based tradition of Expressionism that also included artists such as Albert Giacometti (whose elongated human forms are highly reminiscent of Standing Man and other works by Oliveira) and Francis Bacon, who shared his interest in visually degraded representations of the human body.

Oil on canvas - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis


The Newspaper

Artist: Paul Wonner

Lit by the North-Californian sun, Paul Wonner's vibrant 1960 painting shows a figure reading a newspaper, a plate of fruit and glass of flowers artfully dispersed on the table in front of her. Lush, semi-tropical vegetation surrounds the veranda, drawing together the dual impressions of interior and exterior so characteristic of Wonner's work. The dominant blues of the lower half of the painting, offset against the green of the leaves, create a formal distinction between the natural and the manmade, the triangular planes below meeting the organic forms above in an irregular horizon-line. The blue diagonals of the terrace draw the viewer's attention to the seated figure, then upwards into the spreading leaves, whose fanned stalks redirect the eye in turn towards the open patches of color to the top-right. A feeling of both spaciousness and intimacy is conveyed.

Wonner has perhaps become best-known for his still lifes, which he began creating in the early 1970s, quickly moving towards a hyper-realistic style. Something about this work suggests a similar kind of poised stillness, as if this piece were a still life in spirit, the figure posed in the sunny backyard in the same way as the glass and plate upon the table. In stylistic terms, this work seems less influenced than that of some of Wonner's contemporaries by the moody introspection of the Expressionist tradition. The Newspaper is more reminiscent of the vibrant color-experiments of the Nabis, and of other French Post-Impressionist artists of the late nineteenth century. Despite the characteristic use of a solitary human subject, the setting also seems more evocative of human life and interaction than the work of Bischoff or Oliveira, for example.

Among the Bay Area Figurative painters, Wonner brought a unique sense of intimacy and warmth to his work, his figures and subjects embodying the sunnier aspects of 1960s Bay Area lifestyle. At the same time, like his peers within the Figurative movement, he created works which are highly and consciously evocative of the tradition of figurative abstraction from which they emerge.

Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Girls in the Surf with Moon Casting a Shadow

Artist: Joan Brown

To create this painting, Brown, like Park and Bischoff, used what were known as 'Bay City Paints', inexpensive oil paints sold across the local area in one-gallon cans, used by the Bay Area artists to create thick, encrusted surfaces. In Brown's painting, ragged patches of pure color overlap with the figures of the two nudes, who hold hands against a dark background which seems to contain a buried luminosity. Bischoff was a major influence on Brown, and here she reinterprets one of his recurring motifs - nudes near a body of water - with her own irreverent, lyrical approach. Brown was also drawn to David Park's chunky compositional forms, his thick use of paint, and his almost crudely gestural brushwork.

Joan Brown's hip, whimsical style, and her energetic and dynamic use of color and texture, singled her out amongst the Bay Area Figurative painters. A native of San Francisco, she became a leading figure of 1960s Bay Area culture, creating work influenced by the West Coast Beats as well as the art scene which enveloped her. The art critic Jane Addams Allen has described Brown's work as "[a]utobiographical and uninhibited, [with] an exhilarating exuberance", offering "wry and humorous insights into the dilemma of being female and discovering the world." The woman on the left of this canvas is probably Brown herself, an inveterate swimmer who later took up the challenge of swimming across San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz Island. There is a seriousness to the women's expressions, an impression of dignity of purpose enhanced by their postures, which the painting's naïve treatment only intensifies. As the artist herself put it, her intention was to portray the "interior attitudes" of her female subjects.

Brown's influence on Bay Area art extended beyond her contribution to the Figurative movement. In conversation with her sometime husband Manuel Neri, she was the first artist to use the term "Funk" - later adopted as the name of an associated art movement - stating: "It's David [Park]'s work. That's funky." This was a quality Brown aspired to, leading her to create one of the most distinctive and vivacious bodies of work associated with the Bay Area Figurative Movement.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Cityscape I

Artist: Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn's iconic 1963 cityscape depicts a typical San Francisco neighborhood. To the left, buildings are presented as intersecting geometric planes, while to the right, larger, flattened planes represent empty fields and vacant lots. A hill rises in the upper right quadrant, while horizontal planes of shadow create a dynamic tonal interplay which captures the mood and light of the Northern-Californian landscape. The geometrical approach is characteristic of Diebenkorn's modernist-influenced style, while his aerial perspective, exaggerated in the upper third of the painting, generates the impression of a landscape tilted upwards towards the sun.

Of all the first-generation Bay Area Figurative artists, Diebenkorn remained most influenced by the abstract style which dominated the art world of his youth. Moving into a representational style in the early 1960s, he continued to expound a grid-based compositional approach, though adding multiple layers of color to his work to generate a contrasting sense of fluidity and vibrancy. Based upon an actual neighborhood, Cityscape I offers a synthesis of real and imagined landscapes. The buildings to the left are faithfully represented, but to the right Diebenkorn chose to vacate the scene, instead showing empty land in various stages of development, from the plots of cleared earth below to the relatively pristine hillside above. A sense of the organic life of the city, a process of growth and decay mirroring that of the natural world, is thus generated by the work.

Returning to abstraction in his later years, Diebenkorn created his renowned Ocean Park series between 1967 and 1995, using an aerial perspective in works such as Ocean Park No. 67 (1973) to depict the landscape as a series of luminously colored abstract planes. Diebenkorn brought a uniquely rigorous abstract style to the Bay Area Figurative movement. Throughout his life, he maintained that a representational style could be consistent with a radically modern sensibility, declaring that "[a] painting is an attitude. It's like a sign that is hung up to be seen. It says this is the way it is according to a given sensibility." The art critic Michael Kimmelman has described Diebenkorn as "one of the premier American painters of the postwar era, whose deeply lyrical abstractions evoked the shimmering light and wide-open spaces of California."

Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Art


Reclining Model

Artist: Frank Lobdell

Frank Lobdell's reclining nude is rendered in thick black ink, her eyes closed but her face tilted toward the viewer in a subtle gesture of intimacy. Though supine, the form is visually dynamic, with sharp angles offset against inky depths of shadow: like the dark triangle cradled by her left arm, and the one created between her bent and extended legs. The scene conveys an obvious erotic energy, the dark curving lines of wash on the wall, and the shadows falling upon the model, framing a third dark triangle, that of her pubis. As a result, the work pulses with what art critic John Yau calls "a darker current of sybaritic feeling."

Unlike many members of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Richard Lobdell was not a native of San Francisco. Born in Missouri, he attended art school in Minnesota during the 1930s-40s, only moving to California after his service in Europe during World War II. In 1959, Lobdell joined Bischoff and Diebenkorn's weekly live drawing sessions; he would continue similar drawing sessions until 1974, though by that point he is attached to a different group ( which included Oliveira) based at Stanford University, where Lobdell had become a teacher. His representational work, much of which was created during these sessions, has recently been the subject of critical re-evaluation, with Yau describing pieces like Reclining Model as "works that stand on their own."

Influenced by Pablo Picasso, Lobdell's erotic and dynamic figurative portraits, often employing harsh gestural lines and heavy contrasts of color and shape, represent an important addition to the Bay Area Figurative Movement's approach to portraiture. His time in Europe, both during the WWII and as an art student in Paris in the early 1950s, seems to have had a unique impact on his version of the West Coast style.

Pen, ink, and wash on wove - Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University

Beginnings of Bay Area Figurative Movement

California School of Fine Arts

Much of artistic life in San Francisco in the early 1950s revolved around the California School of Fine Arts, where many of the painters associated with the Bay Area Figurative Movement taught or studied. David Park established important creative friendships with Elmer Bischoff and Hassel Smith at the school, when all three were teaching there in 1946. Richard Diebenkorn, then a student at the school, also became attached to the group, which met for lunch or at weekends at the various artists' studios. In 1946, Clyfford Still, whose Abstract Expressionist work had been lauded at the Art of This Century Gallery exhibition held at Peggy Guggenheim's New York gallery in 1945, joined the school faculty. Still became a dominating influence, and in 1948, Park, Bischoff, and Smith exhibited Abstract Expressionist work at a major show at the San Francisco Museum of Art. But by the following year, Park had turned to figurative work, while continuing to employ the gestural brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, and maintaining its emphasis on form and color. Park became the de facto founder and leader of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. In 1950, after Still left the California School of Fine Arts, partly in protest at Park being named as acting director, the school became a hub for the new figurative movement.

David Park

William Heick's photograph (c. 1949) shows David Park, on the left with his foot up on the desk, teaching a class at the California School of Fine Arts.

Steven A. Nash, curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, has stated: "[t]here is no more fabled chapter in the history of California Art than the audacious stand made by Bay Area Figurative painters against Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s." A legend has grown up around Park's destruction, in 1949, of his early, non-representational work. According to Nash, Park "gathered up all his abstract-expressionist canvases and, in an act that has gone down in local legend, drove to the Berkeley city dump and destroyed them." Feeling constrained by Abstract Expressionism's emphasis on non-figurative purity - as advocated by the leading theorist of the style, Clement Greenberg - Park began creating figurative works such as Rehearsal (1950), his first exhibited painting in the new style, which shows Park at the piano alongside the three other artist-musicians who made up the Studio 13 Jazz Band.

Of his new direction, Park stated: "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. With subjects, the difference is that I feel a natural development of the painting rather than a formal, self-conscious one."

Kids on Bikes (1951)

In 1951, Park's painting Kids on Bikes (1950) made the news as a work which marked a dramatic break with Abstract Expressionism. Winning the 1951 San Francisco Art Association Annual competition, the painting shocked the art community with its naïve figurative style. As the artist Robert Bechtle has noted, "[m]ost of the artists were very committed to abstraction at that point", so that " [f]igurative work looked shockingly avant-garde." 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'."

The Bay Area Figurative Movement began to take shape around the attention and momentum generated by Kids on Bikes, with Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Richard Diebenkorn becoming the 'triumvirate' of the movement. Nonetheless, Bischoff and Diebenkorn were initially ambivalent about Park's new artistic direction, Bischoff describing Kids on Bikes as "pretty flat-footed [...] a sort of outlandish, goofy thing." Despite this assessment, both artists found new creative possibilities in the figurative approach defined by Park. Bischoff later recalled that "[w]e were startled, but the painting, right off, was stuff you couldn't deny, you couldn't dismiss it. It was very arresting, very powerful. It was a generous size in relation to what we were doing at the time and it appeared very sure of itself, very committed, very authoritative." Bischoff would later describe the movement not as being led by Park, but as defined by "mutual encouragement"; his own figurative works were first exhibited in the 1953 San Francisco Art Association Annual.

King Ubu and Six Gallery

The cover of <i>An Art of Wondering: The King Ubu Gallery, 1952-1953</i>, a catalogue edited by Christopher Wagstaff that emphasizes the irreverent contemporaneity of the gallery.

The King Ubu Gallery was established in 1952, in a former auto-mechanic shop, by the poet Robert Duncan and the artists Harry Jacobus and Jess Collins (known simply as "Jess", one of the first artists to attach herself to the so-called Funk movement which grew out of the Bay Area Figurative style). The gallery took its name from Alfred Jarry's famous 1896 play Ubu Roi, and was similarly anarchist in its sympathies. A forum for the promotion of artistic diversity, adherent to no movement, the stated aim of the gallery, according to its founders, was to "mix it up." Only two other galleries committed to cutting-edge art existed in San Francisco at the time, and, as the critic Thomas Albright remarks, contemporary galleries in the Bay Area then had "the life expectancy of fruit flies." As a result, King Ubu became an important venue both for the promotion of Bay Area Figurative work - Bischoff held his first solo exhibition there in 1953 - and in establishing a uniquely diverse underground artistic culture in San Francisco. Though the gallery's existence was brief, its spirit endured through the launch of the Six Gallery in the same space.

Six Gallery

Robert Berg's photograph <i>Jack Spicer and guests at the opening of the Six Gallery, San Francisco, Halloween 1954</i>. The poet Jack Spicer is shown in the right foreground

The artist Wally Hedrick, along with Deborah Remington, John Ryan, Hayway King, David Simpson, and the poet Jack Spicer, launched the Six Gallery as an artist cooperative in 1954. The Bay Area Figurative artists Manuel Neri and Joan Brown were members of the group, as were various other local contemporary artists. Hedrick had become close friends with many of them as the banjo player in the Studio 13 Jazz Group. The critic Rebecca Solnit has stated that "[t]he jazz band, like the King Ubu and Six Galleries, was one of many gestures toward making a community and a culture. For what these artists realized is that before they could make art they had to make a culture in which it was possible to make art, and such a thing barely existed on the West Coast in their day. They did this by starting collective projects." The Six Gallery exhibited work across a range of styles, and, like the King Ubu Gallery, was committed to no particular movement, as indicated by Hedrick's particular role in an annual Bay Area art-world ritual: "there was a tradition for the Figurative painters - they were called the Figs - to play the Creepy Crawlers - who were the Abstract Expressionists - every year to see who was better [...] Every group would come up with a team, and I would be the umpire. I'm very proud of the fact that they would trust me. I mean, I had nothing to do with either style, and the fact was that they recognized that."

Six Gallery was also a literary hub, famous as the location of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg's first performance of "Howl" on October 7, 1955. A rambling, free-verse epic, "Howl" was a searing indictment of the repressive McCarthyite culture of 1950s North America, and became a foundational tract for both the Beat movement and the counter-culture of the 1960s. Manuel Neri helped to organize the event "6 Poets at 6 Gallery", an idea conceived by Hedrick. The Beat poets Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen read alongside Ginsberg, with poet and scholar Kenneth Rexroth introducing the group. The reading brought national and international attention to the gallery, helping to establish San Francisco as a center of counter-cultural ferment during the 1960s.

Studio 13 Jazz Band

Jerry Burchard's photograph <i>Studio 13 Jazz Band playing in the social hall at the California School of Fine Arts, 1957</i> shows, from left to right, Joan Brown observing, David Park on the piano, Wally Hedrick on banjo, and trumpet player Elmer Bischoff.

Named after the classroom at California School of Fine Arts where they rehearsed and sometimes performed, the Studio 13 Jazz Band was established by David Park and Elmer Bischoff in 1952. Both of the founding members were teachers at the school, and had a deep and lifelong interest in jazz. Many other artists at this time were enthused by the Dixieland Jazz revival sweeping the country. School director Douglas MacAgy was the band drummer, with Park on piano, Bischoff on trumpet and cornet, and Wally Hedrick on banjo. The group performed at parties, art-openings, and monthly events at the Six Gallery, and continued performing into the late 1990s. As Hedrick stated humorously in 1996, "[w]e still play the same tunes. We've just gotten worse." The band became a point of connection between the Bay Area Figurative generation and the younger Beat and Funk artists of 1960s-70s San Francisco.

National Recognition

In 1957, the Oakland Art Museum held a major exhibition, Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting, which brought the work of Park, Bischoff, Diebenkorn, and other artists to national and international attention for the first time. As a result of the exhibition, their movement became nationally and to some extent globally renowned, with critics positing a new revolution in modern art on America's West Coast. The art critic Kenneth Baker described the Bay Area Figurative Movement as "the region's only modern art movement, so far, to gain global recognition."

Bischoff and Diebenkorn: The 1960s

With the untimely death of David Park from cancer in 1960, Bischoff and Diebenkorn became the de facto leaders of the Movement, and their practice and teaching were important influences on the generations of painters that followed. Diebenkorn's modernist sensibility drew upon a number of influences, including Piet Mondrian's grid compositions and Pierre Bonnard's vibrant color palette, but he transformed these influences with his figurative compositional sense. As the artist said, "I began to feel that what I was really up to in painting [...] was altering - changing what was before me - by way of subtracting or juxtaposition or superimposition of different ideas."

Bischoff's approach as both artist and teacher was very different, as exemplified by his statement: "[w]hat is most desired in the final outcome is a condition of form which dissolves all tangible facts into intangibles of feeling." His urban landscapes such as Orange Sweater (1955) are noted for conveying a powerful mood of isolation, while in his later seascapes, the landscape takes on a chaotic emotional force. As a tutor, according to art historian Bill Berkson, Bischoff extolled "the virtues of 'vague' as opposed to a too-clear partiality of image: above the attainable 'stamped-out' product, he favored the more arduous, open-ended personal search."

Bay Area Figurative Movement: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

The Bay Area Figurative Movement spanned the period from 1950 to 1970. The intervening twenty years has been broken down into three generations, the first generation followed by a bridge generation, and then the second generation.

The First Generation

The artists seen to define the first generation of the Bay Area Movement are David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Richard Diebenkorn, all of whom began their careers as Abstract Expressionist painters. While their figurative work continued to employ the gestural brushwork and other stylistic traits of Abstract Expressionism, in many respects they worked in conscious opposition to the style. Park, in particular, posited what he called an "anti-style" opposed to the idea of abstract purity, announcing that he wanted to create "pictures," not "paintings." Each of the three artists had a distinct approach, however, and their ideas were never resolved into the clarity of a single ethos. Diebenkorn, in particular, remained deeply interested in the rigor and challenge of modernist composition, while Bischoff explored influences such as Edward Hopper, and the Symbolist work of Edvard Munch and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Poet and art critic Bill Berkson summed up the differences between the three artists by stating that "[i]f David Park was the classicist of the founding triad [...] and Richard Diebenkorn the modernist, Bischoff was the romantic."

Bridge Generation

The bridge generation included the artists Paul Wonner, Roland Petersen, Frank Lobdell, Theophilus Brown, John Hultberg, and Nathan Oliveira. The talismanic presence of Park, Bischoff and Diebenkorn at the California School of Fine Arts had a profound effect on the San Francisco art world, and the bridge generation primarily constituted a group of artistic peers who built upon their example. Lobdell began teaching at the California School in 1957, and in 1959 joined the weekly drawing sessions held by Park, Diebenkorn, and Bischoff. Roland Petersen became best-known for his so-called 'Picnic Series' (1962-70), with works such as April Picnic (1962) showing figures on a hilltop overlooking a landscape broken up into small planes of complementary colors. While Lobdell persevered with an abstract approach through works such as Ascent (Red) (1962), he became renowned for his figurative drawings. Brown and Wonner were Abstract Expressionists who began exploring figuration in the mid-1950s. Brown became renowned for his depiction of the human figure in works such as Untitled (Nude with Trellis & Landscape) (1961), using sweeping brushstrokes and a vivid and strange color palette. The bridge generation helped to expand the formal scope of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Oliveira, for example, was a sculptor and lithographer, while Petersen was a renowned printmaker.

The Second Generation

The second generation consisted of the painters Joan Brown, Robert Qualters, Henry Villierme, and Bruce McGaw, and the sculptor Manuel Neri. Many of the second-generation artists were students at the California School of Fine Arts, where they were tutored by Park, Bischoff, Diebenkorn, and Lobdell. Bischoff, for instance, became a longtime mentor to Joan Brown, after she attended his summer classes. At the same time, the second generation brought a new stylistic and thematic range to the movement. Henry Villierme, newly arrived in the Bay Area, became a rising star within the movement when, in 1957, he won a Richmond, California exhibition prize, beating out Diebenkorn, Oliveira, and Park. Works of Villierme's such as Landscape (1956) use an aerial perspective to depict Northern Californian farmland in richly colored geometric planes. Neri, the only major sculptor associated with the group, applied painterly touches to his plaster figures to create innovative three-dimensional forms, while Brown brought a new hipness and vigor to her figurative paintings. By the time the second generation came to maturity in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the San Francisco counter-culture was also beginning to flower. As a result, the artists of the Bay Area Figurative Movement were increasingly influenced by pop culture and new age ideas rather than defining their work solely in opposition to Abstract Expressionism.

Later Developments - After Bay Area Figurative Movement

During the late 1950s and 1960s, the Bay Area Figurative Movement had a significant influence on many aspects of Bay Area culture, including the underground Funk Art movement, which also foregrounded representational art, and the San Francisco Beat Movement, which had extensive connections to the local art world. The Pop Art of Wayne Thiebaud was also influenced by David Park and other Bay Area Figurative artists.

The movement began to decline as a cohesive force around 1970, after Diebenkorn and Bischoff returned to creating abstract work. Other artists associated with the movement also moved in new directions, with Paul Wonner turning to still lifes in a hyper-realistic style. Joan Brown's representational work began to incorporate elements of surrealism, pop culture, and myth, often with an underlying feminist impetus. Her focus on domestic imagery and self-portraiture made her a figurehead for the feminist art movement of the 1970s.

Many of the artists associated with the Bay Area Figurative Movement became noted teachers, working at the University of California in Berkeley, or at Stanford University, thus influencing subsequent generations of artists. Peri Schwartz, Jenny Nelson, Ryoko Tajiri, Daniel Ochoa, and Suhas Bhujbal are amongst various contemporary artists drawing upon aspects of the movement. The artist Kim Frohsin blends elements of the Bay Area Figurative style with nostalgic pop-culture elements, while Mitchell Johnson deploys colored geometric shapes reminiscent of the Bay Area Figurative style in pieces such as Torrenieri (2011). The movement also had an international impact, influencing artists such as the Spanish Eduardo Albarado, the Indian Siddharth Parasnis, and the Polish Waldemar Mitrowski.

Useful Resources on Bay Area Figurative Movement


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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"Bay Area Figurative Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 10 Jul 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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