David Park: Pioneer of Abstract Figurativism

SFMOMA remembers influential, innovative San Francisco artist in a new retrospective.

If you’re lucky enough in your lifetime, you’ll see works of art that distill an entire art movement into a single, unforgettable painting. Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 is like that, with its depiction of wartime violence that takes viewers right into a pending nighttime execution. Until Goya created that painting in 1814 (it’s now on permanent display at Madrid’s Prado Museum), the art world didn’t possess an emotionally realistic work that showed the volatility and cruelty of man’s capacity for inhumanity.

And then there’s David Park’s Four Men from 1958. Now on display at SFMOMA for a major Park retrospective, Four Men is David Park at his best, and the Bay Area Figurative Art movement at its most sublime. Unlike The Third of May 1808, Four Men has no real “action” — just three bathers standing around while a fourth one rows away in a boat. But the feeling in Four Men is as unmistakable as it is in Goya’s seminal work, with Park’s brushstrokes, colors, and figures beckoning the viewer to not just imagine the scene but to participate in it — to be with the men, and exist in an abstracted world where limbs and movements blend in with the composite surroundings.   

“David Park: A Retrospective,” which opened on Oct. 4, is the artist’s first large-scale exhibition in three decades, and we see painting from virtually every year Park made art — from his beginnings in the 1930s to his mature years that ended in 1960, when Park died of lung cancer at his Berkeley home. He was only 49. By then, Park had become a national name after the art world finally caught up to his way of seeing: With scenic canvases of large brush strokes and buoyant colors that amounted to a kind of abstract figuratism. Put another way: Park created a new artistic vocabulary by breaking free from the orthodoxy of abstract expressionism and adding his kind of people.

In Park’s early 1950s work, like the 1952 painting Cocktail Party, Park’s people could pass for characters from a World War II-era cartoon strip. By the late ’50s, though, Park’s figures had morphed into full-blown totems. The people in Park’s late paintings were almost like unformed, primordial sculptures who lived among us and did everyday things, whether it was sitting in a chair (1958’s Man in a T-Shirt), playing outdoor sports (1959’s Beachball), performing indoor music (1959’s The Cellist), or just hanging out with others (1959’s Couple and 1959’s Two Heads). These works from the late ’50s are Park’s most intense and biggest in terms of canvas size. And as with Four Men, they’re the paintings that — spread out in multiple galleries on SFMOMA’s fourth floor — offer a searing, visceral high point to “David Park: A Retrospective.” 

‘The Cellist’ by David Park.

Sixty years after his death, Park’s canvases are now a fundamental part of the art-world pantheon, but Park’s late-career art was bookended by early work that let him find his artistic voice, including distinctive figurative paintings from the 1930s, Picasso-influenced work from the 1940s, and purely abstract work from the late ’40s that survived one of the most famous moments in Park’s life: When he grabbed as much of his abstract art as possible, piled it into his 1935 Ford automobile, and drove with his wife, Lydia, to throw it all away at a Berkeley dump. The year was 1949 or 1950, depending on what source you believe, and the event featured Park burning the art himself or watching the dump’s worker destroy the art, also depending on what source you believe, according to exhibit curator Janet Bishop. 

“What the paintings told me, was that I was a hard-working guy who was trying to be important,” Park once said, as recounted in the exhibit, whose catalogue also quotes Park as saying: “I did not want to be known by this work. I was artificially putting together forms. Every movement had judgment in it — is it good or is it bad? It stopped my complete absorption in my work.”

With his abrupt good-bye to pure abstraction, Park made a painting called Rehearsal, depicting a jazz band in which Park played piano. We see what Park would have seen from his vantage point: The backs and sides of his playing partners’ heads, and the outlines of their instruments. Park was painting from his life; he once played in a band composed of faculty at the California School of Fine Arts (which is now the San Francisco Art Institute). One of Park’s contemporaries at the school called Rehearsal “a gag,” and other contemporaries were mystified and perplexed that Park would attempt not just to paint these scenes but exhibit them as serious art at a time when Clyfford Still (who taught at the school) and abstract art was ascendant. Park didn’t give a damn. At least not enough to turn back. And he had a support system of other artists like Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn who joined him in what became the Bay Area Figurative Art movement — a network of painters who explored the human form through figures that, similar to Park’s Four Men, blended in with their surroundings to become shapes and shadows in a greater schematic.   

‘Rehearsal’ by David Park.

A companion exhibit at SFMOMA, “David Park and His Circle: The Drawing Sessions,” reveals how Park started weekly drawing salons in 1953 with Bischoff and Diebenkorn, which led them to inspire each other and inspire new converts to their way of making art. The exhibit makes the connection between Park and Joan Brown, a student of Bischoff who adopted the ideals of the Bay Area Figurative Art movement and made works like Young Girl, a 1962 painting of thick paint streaks and swatches that is very much a Park-like portrait. While the de Young Museum owns Young Girl, “David Park and His Circle: The Drawing Sessions” features Brown’s Girl Taking Her Clothes Off #1, a 1962 work of paint, graphite, and cut paper that takes a similar approach to Young Girl. Brown apparently made the work in the kind of weekly session that Park begat in 1953, so we see how Park’s liberation from abstraction had a ripple effect for another generation of painters.

That ripple effect is still happening. Young artists still study Park’s work, and scholars are still interpreting Park’s work and life for new audiences. In her acclaimed 2012 biography, David Park: A Painter’s Life, historian Nancy Boas makes note of the moment when one of Park’s paintings surpassed $1 million for the first time at an international art auction. The milestone occurred on May 15, 2007 — almost 50 years after Park’s passing.

What exactly does Park’s art have to say to audiences in the year 2020? Plenty. Park was self-taught, and his search for answers and an aesthetic that would feel true for him took two decades of artmaking. He first hit upon a distinct aesthetic in his late 30s — and then pushed the boundaries even more. In the last months of his life, Park experimented with different modes of art, even as he couldn’t stand and suffered through bouts of severe pain.

“David Park: A Retrospective” features a long scroll from 1960 that Park made with a felt-tip pen and — like a sacred tablet from a religious school — narrates scenes that meant much to the chronicler. Park’s scroll doesn’t highlight overt religious scenes, just scenes of Park’s memories from his Boston upbringing, where people would boat in waterways, walk along garden pathways, and hang out in the street. These ordinary scenes were the essence of Park’s work. They were, in a way, his religion. “I like to paint people who could do anything but don’t,” Park once said. 

It’s this undercurrent of a tempered reality — of seeing men standing around in Four Men; of seeing women do the same thing in 1959’s Four Women; and of seeing two women reading separately in 1959’s Women at a Table — that helps give Park’s late work a timelessness.

On the exhibit’s opening wall text, Bishop calls Park a “deeply humanist artist.” That’s so true. And Park’s humanism connects him to Francisco Goya’s work and to myriad other artists who — both before and after Park — found a new way to reveal scenes that were both explicit and unknowing. 

With Park’s paintings, we have to fill in some of the narration. We have to guess at what’s happening. But Four Men is not for us to unravel. Not really. It’s for us to gaze at and contemplate. We look at the painting’s figures, and two of them look at us as if we were uninvited — and in that moment, life stands still for them and for us.  

“David Park: A Retrospective”
“David Park and His Circle: The Drawing Sessions”
Through Jan. 18 at SFMOMA
151 Third St., S.F. $19-$25, 415-357-4000

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