American Painter and Art Educator
Summary of David Park
Shocking the San Francisco art world in 1949, David Park made a dramatic stylistic break. No longer happy to paint compositions of color and abstract form, Park refocused his eye on the human figure in its everyday setting. A leader in what would come to be known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Park, along with his friends Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, painted local landscapes and culture and in so doing offered an alternative to the then dominant Abstract Expressionists.
Having adopted his new subject matter, Park continued to use intense color, unusual perspective, and some degree of abstraction to create paintings with psychological depth and mystery. Inspired by jazz music and friends with Beat poets, Park would himself go on to influence a host of figurative painters in California, including Pop artist David Hockney.
- In order to reintroduce the human element in painting, Park turned to figuration. Never a photorealist painter insisting on strict fidelity, Park embraced the lessons of abstraction to create moody and atmospheric scenes of California life that were responsive to the locale and also spoke to the tradition of European urban abstraction, from the Post-Impressionism of late-19th-century Paris to the Expressionist canvases of early-20th century Germany and Northern Europe.
- A jazz musician himself, many of Park's subjects are musical in nature, but even at his most abstract, one senses that musical rhythms and tones are never far from his mind.
- Using minimal means, Park created paintings with a psychological depth. Not only do the individuals seem to have interior lives, but their estrangements and connections with others and their environments also become apparent.
Biography of David Park
Like so many West Coast American artists of the mid-20th century, David Park actually came from the very different world of the industrious East. David Park was born to parents Mary Turner and Charles Edward Park, a highly regarded Unitarian minister, in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1911. The Park family was typical of the Boston middle class - hardworking, serious, and straightforward.
Important Art by David Park
Park was teaching at the California School of Fine Art when he painted Untitled (1948) and still working in an Abstract Expressionist style. This was the year before Park had his great conversion to the figurative, but quasi-figurative shapes populate the composition. Indistinct shapes and planes of color intersect the canvas, and fine black lines are vaguely suggestive of human shapes. Deeply inspired by Picasso at this time, Park used a mix of a biomorphic and geometric formations to build a vertical composition of shapes and colors. Like many Abstract Expressionists, he used thick, expressive strokes of paint, allowing them to drip down the canvas.
Given Park's love of music, and especially jazz, Untitled has a certain musical quality to it. While one might sense a musical instrument or musician in the forms, one could also understand it as a whole sensory experience of an audience member or performer. The rhythm of the lines and the transitions between color evoke the abstract qualities of music. Park has already found his unique use of color even at this early stage; the bright, creamy citrus tones and mellow blues are celebratory and vibrant.
When Park destroyed many of his abstract works in 1949, he immediately began work on figurate works, including Rehearsal. In 1950, Rehearsal was exhibited at the Artist Members Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, to the surprise and consternation of his friends, colleagues, and critics. Park's sudden stylistic switch confused and perplexed many, and some thought it was a joke.
The painting depicts the scene of a jazz band rehearsal. Its figures resemble the members of Park's own band at the time, the Studio 13 Jazz band, which included Elmer Bischoff among others. Without making faithful portraits of his band mates, in general the painting captures the warmth and energy of the ensemble. Painted with rich, warm color and creamy, layered paint, the piece is highly personal; it is painted from an unusual perspective: from behind a piano, which was Park's position in the band. The viewer is transported to Park's own experience of playing and loving jazz music. He plays with the arrangement of figures in the space to create a unique point of view; the lines of the piano and upright bass draw the eye towards the flat, orange space of the studio. Many scholars have interpreted these figures as both a nod to and criticism of the California School of Fine Art's obsession with abstraction; all the musicians face the conductor and follow the same tune.
By 1952, David Park was well into the swing of what would become known as Bay Area Figurative Painting. He continued to depict everyday scenes, objects, and people with genuine affection and warmth; attuned to the everyday, Park painted new perspectives to open the viewers' eyes to scenes that may otherwise go unnoticed.
Park used a palette knife instead of a traditional paintbrush to thickly apply the paint and build up the intense orange-yellow that dominates the painting. A single woman stands by a bus stop, perhaps having just left the bus. Her persimmon-colored jacket matches the bus behind her, in the magic of everyday coincidences. The vertical lines between the bus windows draw one's eye to the background, where softly depicted figures sit on the bus, continuing on their shared journey. While the figures of the bus are together in a shared space, they are also separate; each deep in their own thoughts and aspirations.
Art critic John Seed observes, "David Park's The Bus ... struck me as having an underlying theme of individualism. As a woman walks away from a bus she goes her own direction while the bus carries its group of riders on to the next stop. For Park, who a few years before had chosen figuration when every other ambitious modern artist was painting abstractly, the theme of being on one's own had a special resonance." Park's contemporary Steven Pepper once said that "he is the son of a prominent clergyman, and carries on the intellectual Emerson-like attitude, together with a bit of rebellion which has kept him a painter against hard odds, and with a lot of emotional insight." The Bus celebrates a coalition of individualism and collectivism; while Park celebrates the company and achievements of his peers, he ultimately marches to the beat of his own drum.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on David Park
- David Park, Painter: Nothing Held BackBy Helen Park Bigelow
- David Park: A Painter's LifeOur PickBy Nancy Boas
- David Park: A RetrospectiveBy Janet Bishop
- David ParkBy Richard Armstrong
- The Tender Art of David ParkBy Sanford Schwartz / The New York Review of Books / November 13, 2009
- David Park: "The colours took my gaze for a ride"By Bill Berkson / Artcritical: The online magazine of art and ideas / May 6, 2012
- David Park and Bay Area FigurationOur PickBy Nancy Boas / JPRI / Occasional Paper No. 51 (March 2015)
- Bridging the Coasts: Bay Area Figurative Painters at YaleOur PickBy John Seed / HyperAllergic / May 12, 2014
- Taking drastic measuresBy Lou Fancher / The Monthly / May 2016