Artworks and Artists of Bay Area Figurative Movement
Progression of Art
Kids on Bikes
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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