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David Park: Go Figure

David Park found a way to paint figuratively that would be meaningful in an age of abstraction, and well beyond.

David Park, Woman at a Table, circa 1938

David Park, Woman at
a Table, circa 1938, oil on canvas, 42 x 36 in.

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The work of the painter David Park presents what seems a reverse trajectory in American painting. Rather than slowly but surely removing the figurative elements from his work until paint became a purely real and present formal element divorced from representation, Park’s work did the opposite. During the heyday of America’s first homegrown easel painting tradition, Abstract Expressionism, David Park painted figures and spaces from life. The artist dabbled in abstraction under the influence of Cyfford Still’s ideas on non-objective painting, but found it did not suit him.

Around 1950 Park summarily (and some say apocryphally) brought the canvases of this period to the city dump. For Park this was not a moment of desperation but one of liberation, like parting with a pair of trendy, ill-fitting pants bought with life-changing intentions. Sometimes it’s best to let fashion pass one by, and this is exactly what Park did. In modern painting there are few better examples of the dictum “To thine own self be true.” The results of Park’s reckoning with his own nature however, did not leave him in the dust kicked up by abstract painters. The figuration the painter embraced instead inaugurated one of American painting’s most significant movements, the Bay Area Figurative Movement.

In the midst of so much abstraction, Park’s first notable return to figuration was seen as a “gag” or at best a tribute to a special moment that the artist hoped to memorialize on canvas. The 1949–50 oil on canvas Rehearsal was neither. Presented at the de Young Museum in the spring of 1950, it depicts a jazz band from Park’s perspective seated behind the piano. Park was a classically trained pianist, and the painting is based on rehearsals by faculty and students of the California School of Fine Arts, where the artist taught. The painting presents recognizable forms and a shift to a contingent, minor mode of autobiography. Park’s engagement with abstraction during the previous decade is not lost though, but instead is married with a familiar modernist deconstruction of space and figure.

Rehearsal creates bodies from a limited color palette and simple shapes, yet the choice of perspective and subject give the painting life and mind. The canvas combines the acts of seeing, remembering, and painting into one humble, sturdy vision. The arms and backs of the musicians are rendered with large monochrome blocks of color. Flatness and depth vie for prominence. The influence of Picasso is strongly felt. Rather than a violent shattering of objects, though, Park uses limited color and shape to affirm the presence of objects and people—conspicuously absent from so many contemporary canvases—with unfettered directness. Park’s vision was a constructive, positive one. The lessons he took from Modernism could be seen in the paring down of forms and flattening of the image. Rather than following the path that seemed to lead beyond representation to a pure affirmation of paint and canvas, Park chose to stay on the threshold, remain with figuration, and explore what might happen there.

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is presenting Park’s career in full with a show organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, titled “David Park: A Retrospective” (through September 22). The first full retrospective devoted to the artist, it follows Park’s journey through Cubist-inspired works, social realism, and abstraction to his ultimate return to figurative art. The works on display are largely drawn from local Bay Area collectors and institutions, and this is no coincidence. Park’s return to the human form sparked the Bay Area Figurative movement, and he continues to be seen as its most important adherent. The simple shift back to representation counted Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff among the “members” of its first generation. In essence, the Bay Area Figurative artists created a parallel path which diverged from the commonly held view that abstraction was the only way forward for painters.

Like St. Francis shedding the decadent assumptions of the Catholic Church of his day in order to penetrate the essence of the Christian faith, Park’s humble return to the figure was both a personal necessity and a statement on contemporary painting. It was an attractive path for other painters who eventually made the journey along with Park back to the potentiality of representation. The figure created an inherent space of possibility where expressive techniques and ideas could take literal shape. Formal and expressive elements, which took complete precedence in non-objective painting, were employed with specific representational intent. The results were not illusory windows into fictional images, however, but representation and seeing at its very limit. A brushstroke could be a figure’s arm while remaining a brushstroke. The nature of painting was just as much the subject here as it was in Abstract Expressionism.

Representation as abstraction was not new. The Impressionists had troubled this mind- and eye-bending line, where paint retained its materiality while still working toward a record of the perceivable reality. Even earlier, the Sung Dynasty landscape painter Wang Wei wrote of the strange potential the brush had for representation: “[W]ith a stroke of the brush one may suggest the whole sky, one may give the full shape of a body or the brightness of the eyes. With some curving lines one can represent the Sung Mountain and obtain its effect within a ten feet square[…] Such is the effect of painting.” According to Wang Wei, “people usually pay attention only to formal aspects and effects, but the ancients did not make their paintings simply as records of the sites of cities and country districts or to mark out the limits of towns […] They had their origins in forms, but these were made to blend with the spirit and excite the heart (mind).” In a similar way, with a few brushstrokes and blocks of color Park was able to invoke the spirit of a musician, a child on a bicycle, or his wife. His work has its foundation in forms but this is only a starting point, a springboard for an engrossing dance between presence and absence on the canvas.

As non-objective art tightened its grip on painting during the 1950s, Park’s return to figuration was a radical gesture. The Boston-born painter was, in reality, responding to a natural personal inclination. From an early age Park had displayed a gift for drawing, and with time it grew into a passion for painting. In 1928, the young artist moved from New England to Los Angeles, where he attended classes at the Otis Art Institute. In Park’s estimation, the classes didn’t teach him much. He then found a job assisting sculptor Ralph Stackpole on his large-scale stone figures. Park continued to paint, both watercolors and a small number of murals commissioned by the Public Works Art Project. The prevailing style of the time was social realism, and these ideas found their way into Park’s paintings. He also explored biblical subjects in a series of drawings and paintings based on the book of Genesis. Eventually, Park returned to Massachusetts, where he took a job teaching art and art history. His painting practice expanded, resulting in more compositionally complex works. Another relocation brought Park, his wife Lydia, and their young children back to the West Coast. During the war years in Berkeley, Park’s painting output was small. The works of the first half of the 1940s evoke a strain of primitivism, with Park’s figures recalling the totemic shapes of Henry Moore and Picasso.

After the war, on the eve of an exciting new period in American painting, Park was brought in as a teacher at CSFA. It was in this privileged position that he was able to experience the energy of the new Abstract Expressionist movement. Park saw works by Pollock, Rothko, and Motherwell firsthand. In the midst of this tectonic shift in painting, Park decided to give abstraction a whirl. It didn’t take. The second half of the 1940s was a time of exploration for the artist, and extant sketches show his struggle to move away from representational painting. Forms never disappear completely from his images, though, and by the end of the decade Park would destroy most of his dalliances with non-objective art.

From 1950 to his death in 1960 at the age of 49, Park would create his most mature and powerful works. With the 1950 oil on canvas painting Kids on Bikes, he showed that the representational nature of Rehearsal was not a one-off. It was indeed, Park’s nature. The painting shows a boy on a bike in the extreme foreground gazing behind him at another figure on a bicycle. The image’s subject and composition create a melancholy vision of youth from large patches of color and thick brushstrokes. It is a heartbreakingly simple and deftly sophisticated work that summons the liberation of materials heralded by abstraction, as well as the seemingly magical geometry of figuration, into one highly focused expressive vision. Kids on Bikes was awarded a small prize at the San Francisco Art Association Annuals, and fresh works in this vein followed. The 1954 oil on canvas Woman with Red Mouth hovers on the very precipice of representation. It is a sophisticated work, integrating elements of color field painting into its figuration. Park’s woman is brought to life with relatively few colors and large, thick brushstrokes. Somehow, with these spare elements, Park is able to bring to life a figure with movement and essence. It is like Wang Wei’s single brushstroke suggesting “the whole sky.” Two thick red lines become a lipstick-stained mouth, curved just enough to evoke a clever smile. The slyness of the smile ironically calls to the enigmatic countenance seen in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The mystery in Park’s painting is significantly different, however, as the question is not why the subject is smiling but how.

As Park grew more ill in the last years of his life, he continued to work. The artist created a flurry of works on paper. The 1960 gouache on paper Lydia Drinking Coffee is one such work. The paint has grown thicker. The figure of Lydia is created with a series of precisely chosen shapes and colors. The painting is like an abstraction that decided to pool like mercury into a human form. The colors are unnatural and freed from any realistic palette. And though the brushstrokes are large and quite evident, so is the presence of “Lydia.” Park was not winding down with his last works but continuing to work toward a personal synthesis of non-objective elements and figuration brought to the very edge of their individual natures. In words this sounds much more aggressive than the effect of Park’s paintings. Lydia Drinking Coffee is light and somber. The brushstrokes maintain their autonomy, as in a non-objective work, but the figuration implies the eye and mind of the man holding the brush. The subject is not destroyed through deconstruction but made manifest. The work achieves a unique reconciliation between the prevailing abstraction of the time and the figurative movement the artist had pioneered. Park was not just getting somewhere at the time of his untimely death, he had arrived.”

By Chris Shields

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: June 2019

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