Pioneer of Bay Area Figurative Art Is Celebrated with Career Retrospective of Approximately 125 Works
David Park: A Retrospective, April 11–September 7, 2020
At the age of 38, in late 1949 or early 1950, artist David Park (1911–1960) filled his Ford with as many of his Abstract Expressionist canvases it could fit and abandoned them at the city dump. The work he made next shocked the Bay Area art world. At a moment when serious American painting was dominated by abstraction, Park emphatically reintroduced the figure into his practice and began painting “pictures,” as he called them—a radical decision that led to the development of the Bay Area Figurative Art movement. On view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from April 11 to September 7, 2020, David Park: A Retrospective will be the first major exhibition of Park’s work in three decades and the first to examine the full arc of his extraordinary career.
Featuring approximately 127 works displayed chronologically and ranging from the artist’s early social realist paintings from the 1930s to his final works on paper from 1960, David Park: A Retrospective is organized by SFMOMA and curated by Janet Bishop, Thomas Weisel Family Chief Curator and Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA. The first galleries of the exhibition reveal a restless artist, in the first decades of his career, deftly moving from style to style in search of a distinctive voice that culminate in a rare group of surviving abstractions from the late 1940s. At the heart of the presentation will be a rich selection of the 1950s Bay Area Figurative canvases for which Park is best known.
“I can’t think of any artist who could wield a loaded brush quite like David Park,” said Bishop. “He was a profoundly gifted artist who had two great loves: paint and people. Toward the end of his life, his fascination with the potential of his medium coupled with his appreciation for the human figure led to a group of canvases in which the universal humanity of his subjects comes pulsing through in the most powerful way.”
Though his art training was minimal enough that he was essentially self-taught, Park was a natural draftsman and his gift for rendering the human form was established in early childhood. After moving from his native Boston to California at the age of 17, Park lived for most of his adult life in the Bay Area. He became a beloved and highly influential teacher at both the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and the University of California, Berkeley, and he was at the center of a vibrant community of Bay Area artists including Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Paul Wonner and others.
In the spring of 1951, Diebenkorn saw an image of Park’s Kids on Bikes (1950) for the first time and remarked, “My God, what’s happened to David?” In the early 1950s, figurative painting in the United States was perceived as either old-fashioned or better suited for propaganda than the avant-garde. Park described his skepticism of abstraction as more personal than dismissive of the Abstract Expressionist movement as a whole. He noted in 1952, “I believe the best painting America has produced is in the current non-objective direction. However, I often miss the sting that I believe a more descriptive reference to some fixed subject can make. Quite often even the very fine non-objective canvases seem to me to be so visually beautiful that I find them insufficiently troublesome, not personal enough.” As Bishop notes in the catalogue, by “some fixed subject” Park really meant people.Continue reading