by Mark Van Proyen
Was David Park a conservative artist? A yes or no answer to this cat’s cradle of a question is elusive because it opens on to many subtleties and complexities that resist facile summation. One of these is the presupposition that we agree on what the term “conservative” means in the parallel worlds of art and life. And if, for the sake of convenience, we accept the fiction that there is such an agreement, we would nonetheless need to recognize that, insofar as Park’s work is concerned, its “conservative” status has varied with the times as well as with the differing episodes of Park’s own artistic evolution.
That question is newly relevant because of the exhibition titled David Park: A Retrospective, organized by Janet Bishop and currently hosted on the fourth floor of the reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition requires advanced reservations and face masks for timed entries into uncrowded, socially distanced galleries, allowing visitors to view the works without distraction. This chronologically organized exhibition is the largest and most comprehensive presentation of Park’s work to date, and the first major presentation of it since Richard Armstrong organized one for the Whitney Museum in 1989. It contains 127 paintings and works on paper reflecting all phases of Park’s career, revealing the long digestion process and distillation of diverse influences that eventually culminated in the late figurative paintings for which he is best known. The exhibition is accompanied by a stout catalog containing thoughtful essays by Bishop, Tara McDowell, Corey Keller, Sara Wesson Chang and Lee Hallman. The collection also includes a smaller presentation on the second floor containing drawings made by Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and several other artists, revealing the many different approaches to representing the figure. This is where we are reminded of the widespread influence that was exerted by Park’s “return” to figuration in 1949-50.
Entries into the ledger’s not-conservative side are represented by the earliest works in the exhibition, revealing that Park initially cut his artistic teeth on a kind of Social Realism that echoed various influences ranging from Ben Shahn to Raphael Soyer and maybe even Milton Avery and Paul Cadmus. We can look at two watercolors from 1933 to get an idea of his sympathies with downtrodden workers, including one showing a group waiting in line to get paid and another working as a group to build a road. Those who have read Nancy Boas’ excellent biography of Park will also remember that, early on, he worked as an assistant to Ralph Stackpole on several large-scale WPA projects. That work undoubtedly influenced how he deftly stylized his early figures to valorize “the common man,” which then-Vice President Henry Wallace proclaimed to be the avatars of a renewed American dream. Another factor is the persistent influence of Picasso’s 1920s Neo-Classical works. Park’s figures from the 1933-1937 period, such as Mother and Child (1935) and Girl by Window (1935), register that influence. In works from this period, we often see figures sharing cramped, claustrophobic spaces, as is the case with Self Portrait: Painting His Wife (Painter with Palette and Model) (1937) or Boston Common (1935). Throughout and beyond this early period, we can detect a few notable consistencies. One of these is that the figures depicted in many of these works often look past each other, seeming to be oblivious to those in their immediate company, as is the case with Four People Drinking a Toast (1937) or Exodus: The Staircase (1934). Another was pointed out on John Rapko’s lively social media page, alerting us to how Park used the depiction of arms and elbows to simultaneously invite the viewer into the picture space while also creating an interstitial barrier between viewer and subject. Given how often this device plays itself out in the totality of Park’s artistic development, it seems fair to speculate that there might be something more obsessive about it than a mere compositional device inherited from grand manner Mannerism.
During the late 1930s, as the privation drama of the Great Depression years gave way to the even greater drama of a world on and beyond the brink of international conflagration, Park’s paintings increasingly reflected the influence of European Modernism. And although Park lived most of his adult life in Berkeley, he was born in Boston, the son of a Unitarian minister, both of which point to his identity and a possible source of rebellion. Case in point: Presented in a vitrine is a series of 14 editioned prints collectively titled The Genesis Series (1934), each based on a specific episode in the first book of the Bible. It is tempting to look at these works and think that they might have been cartoonish studies for a stained-glass project or prompts for us to see his later figures as representations of mythic characters partaking of the heroism of everyday life. They might also be seen as early precursors to the gouache works that Park created in the last year of his life, a point about which I’ll say more.
His Bostonian background also looms large when we realize that he returned to the suburb of Brookline to teach at the Winsor, the girl’s school, during the depression years of 1936-41. During his time there, he took frequent weekend trips to New York, which allowed him to view the collections in that city’s museums and experience several major exhibitions firsthand. They included the 1939-1940 Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art; the 1939 Joan Miró exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery and exhibition of Gauguin’s work at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The latter exerted a powerful and long-lasting influence on Park’s artistic direction, which, by 1940, was anything but conservative. His paintings from that period are small, bespeaking a small workspace and limited time to paint. But they grapple directly with Picasso’s synthetic cubism by refining and exaggerating the tension between the graphic and the pictorial.
Park returned to the Bay Area in 1941 and was soon excused from military duty because of a long-standing back injury. In 1944, He joined the California School of Fine Arts (later called the San Francisco Art Institute), where he taught until resigning in 1952. Considering that Park never finished high school, nor did attend college, that was quite an achievement, although it needs to be stated that it was well before the advent of
academic accreditation. For several years after 1952, he was able to paint full-time while being supported by his wife Lydia until he was hired to teach at the UC Berkeley Department of Art Practice in 1955. At long last, the financial burdens that had dogged Park and his family for the previous two decades had finally lifted, and this new freedom was crucial for Park’s subsequent artistic development.
Looking back to the work of the mid-‘40s, we can see Park adopting and then gradually shedding the late-Picasso influence. One of the best and certainly one of the last examples registering that influence is Two Profiles (1946-47), which shows two faces looking past each other. Many of the other paintings he created during this time were more related to the Abstract Expressionism practiced by Clyfford Still and his followers; unfortunately, almost all of these works are lost, as Park disavowed them by depositing them at the city dump in 1950. But two remain, including one titled Non-Objective/Still Life (1949), attesting that Park, however briefly, was on the Abstract Expressionist bandwagon, despite the pitched animosity that existed between him and Still. Indeed, it is difficult to underestimate the antagonism’s full impact on Park’s work. Undoubtedly, part of it was petty jealously, but an equal part of it had to do with Park’s distaste for Still’s grandiose pretensions and the sanctimonious pedantry bred by it, perhaps echoing unresolved aspects of Park’s relationship to his father.
The exhibition includes the first example of Park’s new figurative style, a 1949 painting titled Rehearsal depicting the Studio 13 Jass Band members in which Park was the resident pianist, pictured as a self-portrait at the lower-left corner of the canvas. It also includes his 1951 Kids on Bikes, which, for years, was
mistakenly thought to be the earliest of the late figurative works. It made full use of dramatic jumps between foreground and background to make the painting seem larger than it actually is while also showing off the rich, saturated color strategically muted with earth tones in a way that would become one of Park’s artistic calling cards.
Initially, these works were not well received by his CSFA colleagues (some accused them of being jokes or articles of outright treason), and I have often wondered if the consternation they attracted had something to do with Park’s departure from that school. However, the more commonly circulated story is that he resigned in protest over Director Ernest Mundt’s politically motivated firing of his friend and colleague Hassel Smith. I have also always wondered if the switch back to figuration might have also been influenced by the presence of Max Beckman teaching a summer course at Mills College in 1950. Beckman had an exhibition at that school the same year, and another more extensive one at the San Francisco Museum of Art a few months later. The biographical literature has little to say about this coincidence, but it could have something to do with Park’s self-proclaimed desire to make “problematic pictures” at a time when all of the rest of his compatriots were doing derivative variations on Still’s high-minded abstraction.
And as far as artistic conservatism is concerned, the onset of hostilities in Korea and the anti-communist fervor of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crypto-fascist nativism may have also made their presence indirectly felt in Park’s return to figuration. At that moment, the post-WWII triumphalism began to give way to new anxieties about the Red Scare and the Civil Rights movement. These circumstances corresponded to Still’s exit from the CSFA in1950, and they also anticipated the way that Abstract Expressionism would soon be instrumentalized as Cold War propaganda during the middle part of that decade. Rather suddenly, the radicalism of Abstract Expression was officialized as a sine qua non of American imperialism, recasting the putative conservatism of figuration as something else.
Many of Park’s paintings from the 1950-1956–period were portrait heads of people he knew, including his wife Lydia (aka Deede), whose visage turns up in several works. A small painting titled Head of Lydia from 1956 simultaneously attests to her sensible fortitude and vulnerability, while another larger image from 1952, Untitled/Girl at Fence, shows Deede wistfully looking at a neighbor’s flower garden from across a fence, painted in a sumptuous red oxide. Was this painting a veiled testament to Park’s recognition of what Deede may have sacrificed to be the dutiful wife of an artist? It certainly can be read that way, but it could invite other readings. Other noteworthy portrait heads include one made by the photographer Imogen Cunningham from 1956, with whom he traded for several portraits she took of him that same year. Another is of his longtime friend Richard Diebenkorn, also from 1956. Two notable photographic portraits that seem to be missing are the well-known images of Hassel Smith and Mark Schorer, both from 1952. However, as we shall see, these and other omissions from this show are more than compensated for by the appearance of many other works that have had little or no exposure in previous examinations of Park’s career.
Around 1953, we see Park moving toward larger canvases and more significant expanses of vibrant color. This shift in direction has been attributed to his viewing of the Henri Matisse retrospective at SFMOMA the previous year, as well as the freedom he may have felt after exiting the contentious atmosphere of the CSFA. One of these is titled Bus Stop (c. 1952), which deploys a ravishing combination of yellows and oranges to capture and illuminate a female figure disembarking from a bus. Another, Two Nudes by a River (1954), is one of the better examples of Park’s avowed desire to paint figures “that could do anything, but don’t.” Here, we see a clear announcement that Park was a painter of a “carving proclivity,” to use Adrian
Stokes’ term distinguishing Park from other painters who he deemed to be “modelers.”1. Again, we can be forgiven in thinking that this could have something to do with Park’s likely encounter with Max Beckman’s work in 1950 (or before), but we will never know for sure. But from 1955 to 1959, the carving proclivity becomes ever more pronounced in his work, as his figures begin to look like they have been literally chiseled out of the imaginary solid of the picture space.
Park’s work gradually made another shift around 1957. By that time, he was widely recognized as the progenitor and de facto leader of a group of like-minded painters, many of whom were also refugees from an Abstract Expressionism that was running out of gas, but still disinclined to embrace the turns toward Pop Art and formalist abstraction that were getting their early starts in New York and Los Angeles at that time. The group famously exhibited together in 1957 at the Oakland Museum in a presentation curated by Paul Mills titled Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting. For many, it represented the preferred path beyond Abstract Expressionism, even though it harked back to an earlier pre-war European Modernism. It was a style that was a perfect fit for the Bay Area: rooted in nature and delightfully sensual in a comfortable and even luxurious way, and smugly indifferent to its own provincialism as well as the noisy toot-and-honk of East Coast art politics.
In works from that year, such as Canoe and Bather with Knee Up, we begin to see the freer handling of a more lustrous and richly layered paint. Tom Holland, who was Park’s volunteer studio assistant during the late 1950s, once shared with me the secret to how Park accomplished this new richness of surface. Like many painters during that time and several decades beyond, Park was buying paint from the Bay City Paint Company (aka “Bay City Mud”), which was notorious for providing quart and gallon cans of affordably priced oil paint mixed with minimal pigment and maximum vehicle. According to Holland, Park would empty the full contents of these cans onto thick piles of newspaper, letting the oil drain out for a couple of hours. He would then mix generous helpings of dry pigment into the remaining paint and work with it, adding his own customized mixtures of turpentine and linseed oil. But in knowing this, we are also given pause because a lack of care in such mixing could also release dangerous mineral pigments into the air. This might account for the lung cancer that eventually ended Park’s life in 1960 at the untimely age of 49, although we should also remember that Park was a smoker and that the connection between smoking and lung cancer had not yet been established at that time. The same lack of information also applied to the dangers of breathing particles of powdered pigments made from cadmium and cobalt.
The years 1958 and 1959 are when Park reaches his artistic zenith, and the exhibition contains an expansive selection of works from this period. One of the best (and certainly the most well-known) is Four Men (1958), depicting a quartet of male figures at a beach, one of which is pictured rowing a boat whose horizontal oars create a dynamic compositional device. This and other kindred works testify to the fact that bathers were among Park’s favorite subjects, but in 1958, it was the how (rather than the what) of these works that becomes their most significant factor. In this work, we see Park making abrupt and even aggressive changes in his brushstrokes’ size and velocity, enervating his rendition of figures and their environment, showing them all to be extracted from a phosphorescent primordial froth. It is clear from this and similar works that Park is doubling down on the idea of embodied representation while stepping away from descriptive representation, thereby putting some distance between his own work and that of other members of the Bay Area figurative group, which, in comparison, tends to look ingratiating and excessively fussy.
At this point, Park’s figures cannot be seen as mere studio props. They are existential actors in a drama of sheer tangibility that seeks to ward off all things simulated or vicarious. Early on, Park was interested in the ideas of Carl Jung, and that fact clues us into the idea that the late figures are presented as archetypical beings. They allegorically cement the relation between an enervated painterly surface and the body’s condition of un-mirrored self-understanding rooted in nature and materiality, calling to mind Mario Cutajar’s observation: “The slow accumulation of pigment and geological layering uncannily mimics both the acquisition of experience and bodily growth.”2
Here, it seems unfortunate that Park’s largest and arguably best painting, Daphne (1959), was not included in this exhibition. Again, this omission is balanced by the inclusion of other works that have not yet been as widely exhibited. One is Louise (1959), showing a female figure standing next to a tree. The crisply articulated figure itself looks almost as if it were carved out of marble, but when we look at the tree, we see a looping green brush stoke that resembles a snake, signaling a possible biblical subtext. Both Louise and Daphne are part of a group of late works called Eve paintings, including the powerfully expansive Four Women (1959). It shows a quartet of female nudes, three standing and one kneeling, all looking like powerful nature agents. The solidity of these figures is remarkable, as they look as if they are Venus figures that were carved from ancient marble, yet at the same time, Park’s treatment of them bespeaks a casual, everyday naturalism. And here is where we see Park’s great subject revealed, that being the revelation of archetypical forces undergirding everyday physicality.
Beach Ball, also from 1959, is an uncharacteristic tour-de-force of dynamic diagonals saturated in a frothy, fever-pitch red. Again, Park aggressively varies the size and velocity of his brush strokes, conjuring his subjects into visible being while also coming as close as he ever did to represent motion in the Italian Futurists’ manner. Contrast this painting with another 1959 work titled The Cellist, and a fuller picture emerges. Throughout his career, Park has painted musicians as a favored subject, rivaled only by his interest in bathers, which, in classic early Modernist fashion, signified subjects that “could do anything, but don’t,” because their status of being precedes their status of doing. Park was also a musician (classically trained) and enjoyed going to concerts, so he was fully aware that musicians do indeed do something, but the thing that they do directly reflects on the optimization of not being subjugated by any obligation to serve external demands.
The Cellist has been long thought to be Park’s last work in oil, but there is some recent dispute on that score. Another 1959 work that vies for this status is Nudes and Ocean, but it is unsigned, suggesting that Park may have thought it unfinished or a failure. I disagree. Even though there are areas of the painting that seem unattended to, it still offers a rich and powerful experience, albeit one loaded with more anxiety than any of the other images from that final decade in Park’s life. Its rendition of two figures — one red standing behind another painted yellow and violet — is articulated in the most aggressive brushwork of any of Park’s
other paintings, and there is something vaguely and uncharacteristically off-balance to the composition. It certainly makes one wonder what kind of paintings Park could have made had his life not been cut short by illness. After all, Park was only two years older than Philip Guston, an artist who found his own stride in paintings created in the sixth decade of his life, and whose “return to the figure” didn’t commence until six years after Park’s death.
The exhibition concludes with a selection of 20 gouache-on-paper works that Park made during his final months. Owing to his physical deterioration and the need for pain medication, he was no longer able to work in oil paint, nor could he stand up for very long. Despite these challenges, the late gouaches add another distinctive wrinkle to Park’s artistic development story. In them, he returns to familiar themes and compositional strategies with the fresh eyes bred of the attributes of a different material, achieving stunning chromatic effects enhanced by the bleedings of wet-into-wet pigment. The results are deft and radiant, implying illumination from within and behind their surfaces, rather than a directional light source. But even more to the point, they show him working in a way that further distills the ideas that preoccupied him during the previous decade, ideas that were already complex distillations of history and experience. Discarded in this new phase of distillation was the equation of oil paint with the fleshy, physical body. What remained was the idea that color itself could somehow signify the transcendence of bodily decline. Considered relation to the Genesis prints from 1934 — and the fact that Park’s father was a Unitarian Minister, we can perhaps detect a deathbed striving for some kind of religious redemption. That said, it’s worth remembering that, throughout most of his life, Park had little interest in or patience with religion, preferring to emphasize earthly satisfactions while ignoring heavenly rewards.
Questions about the “conservatism” of Park’s work have continued well beyond his untimely death. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, his work was thought to be unforgivably hokey in relation to the emergence of Funk and Conceptual Art, but by the time that it was featured in a 1976 solo exhibition at the Maxwell Gallery in San Francisco, attitudes about Park’s paintings were already beginning to shift back in their favor. Again, the re-emergence of conservative politics at that time may have been an influencing factor, but it was only one among many. More to the point was the explosive re-emergence of post-conceptual figurative painting in Europe and America, which in turn led to favorable reconsiderations of Park’s work in surveys at the Newport Art Museum in 1977 and the Whitney Museum in 1989. Owing to his pragmatic and adamant disregard for pedantic ideas of art historical inevitability, which, by then, had suddenly fallen out of fashion, Park was subsequently recast as an early pioneer of Postmodernism.
Another posthumous wrinkle in Park’s alleged conservatism rests with the fact that where it stood in subjectivist opposition to art historical master narratives of the 1950s, it now stands in opposition to the techno-bureaucratic master narratives of our own moment. Park’s paintings emphatically celebrate the human subject’s embodied actuality, so much so that they can also be taken to be rebukes to the zoomageddon, the disembodied virtualization that has now become a pervasive aspect of our lives. Indeed, their emphatically tangible materiality-as-medium is very much their massage (to misuse Marshall McLuhan’s trenchant phrase). Still, the particular massage provided by Park’s paintings throws powerful shade on the socio-psychological power of electronic media to codify and distribute anti-life propaganda. Put simply, Park’s paintings demand that you experience them firsthand in all of their fleshy physicality. Unlike the work of his contemporaries, they do not fare well in second-hand reproduction. In fact, I can only think of a few other painters active during the past 70 years whose work rewards the proverbial second glance with as much surprise and reward. So, while there is much that initially meets the eye in Park’s paintings, there is much more that can only be discovered by a face-to-face encounter. In so doing, they embody a consciousness that reaches above, beyond and below the mere declarations of identity that are so routinely re-circulated in our own post-Pop Art moment.
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“David Park: A Retrospective” @ SFMOMA through January 18, 2021.
1. Adrian Stokes, “Carving and Modeling,” in The Image in Form: Selected Writings of Adrian Stokes (Richard Wollheim, Ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1972). 47-48.
2. Mario Cutajar, “A Painter’s Blues,” Artweek, January 11, 1992.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.