Bay Area Figurative Movement
Summary of Bay Area Figurative Movement
The work of the Bay Area Figurative Movement represents an important moment in the development of abstract painting after the Second World War, when artists such as David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, and Elmer Bischoff - all based in the Bay Area of San Francisco - reincorporated subject-matter into their work in defiance of the pure abstraction favored by the so-called New York School: Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, et al. Named after an exhibition held at the Oakland Museum of Art in 1957, and working in a range of genres, from landscape painting to portraiture, the Bay Area Figurative artists created a body of work which is both a paean to local landscape and culture and represents a formal development of global significance within modern art.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- The work of the Bay Area Figurative Movement arguably signifies the most significant and subtle challenge to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism in post-Second World War North-American art. If the revolt of the Pop Artists was defined by a contrarian embrace of the superficial, artists such as David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Richard Diebenkorn embraced the spirit of abstraction while turning to landscapes, figures, and contemporary settings in which their compositions could be grounded.
- The Bay Area Figurative Movement was widely seen as the first significant North-American art movement to be based on the West Coast. With their sunlit terraces, moody seascapes, and atmospheric city scenes, the artists of the Bay Area created work which was both intensely responsive to locale and redolent of a whole tradition of European urban abstraction: from the Post-Impressionism of late-nineteenth-century Paris to the Expressionist canvases of early-twentieth-century Berlin and Northern Europe.
- Just as East-Coast painters of the 1950s-60s such as Jane Freilicher were associated with a community of poets - in Freilicher's case the New York School of Frank O' Hara et al - so the Bay Area Figurative artists responded to the literary culture of their home city as well as its enveloping art scene. Writers such as Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer gravitated around the group, which was also influenced by the West Coast Beat scene, an infusion of genres and media epitomizing the boundary-defying spirit of the era.
Overview of Bay Area Figurative Movement
Much of artistic life in San Francisco in the early 1950s revolved around the California School of Fine Arts, where many of the painters associated with the Bay Area Figurative Movement taught or studied. David Park established important creative friendships with Elmer Bischoff and Hassel Smith at the school, when all three were teaching there in 1946. Richard Diebenkorn, then a student at the school, also became attached to the group, which met for lunch or at weekends at the various artists' studios. In 1946, Clyfford Still, whose Abstract Expressionist work had been lauded at the Art of This Century Gallery exhibition held at Peggy Guggenheim's New York gallery in 1945, joined the school faculty. Still became a dominating influence, and in 1948, Park, Bischoff, and Smith exhibited Abstract Expressionist work at a major show at the San Francisco Museum of Art. But by the following year, Park had turned to figurative work, while continuing to employ the gestural brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, and maintaining its emphasis on form and color. Park became the de facto founder and leader of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. In 1950, after Still left the California School of Fine Arts, partly in protest at Park being named as acting director, the school became a hub for the new figurative movement.
Important Art and Artists of Bay Area Figurative Movement
David Park's seminal painting shows a boy in three-quarter profile clasping the handles of a bike. His skin matches the glowing orange of the track stretching off behind him, the stripes on his shirt echoing the curves of the handlebars. To the right, a second boy pedals away, his figure picked out in black, white, and red, an elongated form complemented by the long white railing to his side. In 1951, Kids on Bikes won the San Francisco Art Association Annual competition, which had a great impact on the regional art scene, effectively launching the Bay Area Figurative Movement.
Kids on Bikes might be seen as appropriating the emotive impact of Abstract Expressionism for figurative art. The extreme cropping of the image, and the foreshortening of perspective, mean that the two figures seem to occupy an internal, imaginative realm rather than an external three-dimensional space. That non-realistic effect - notwithstanding the 'figurative' style - is heightened by the use of intense, non-naturalistic color, again owing something to Abstract Expressionism. The uniformity of color clarifies the mood of the piece, epitomizing what art critic Michael Fried calls Park's use of color for the purposes of emotional "absorption". The exaggerated size of the second boy's rear bike-wheel has led some critics to posit a Freudian interpretation of the work as dealing with adolescent sexual awakening. Certainly, both figures convey self-absorption and anxiety, while the naïve formal approach seems to mimic their pubescent awkwardness.
One of the abstract artists who awarded the San Francisco Art Association prize to Kids on Bikes, Glenn Wessels, noted that the painting was the only one they had judged which was neither realist nor Abstract Expressionist in style. Park's unique combination of figurative subject-matter and non-objective treatment would define the early approach of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. At the same time, he brought an inimitable informality to his painting, drawing the viewer in with his warmth of color, closeness of focus, and everyday subject matter.
Bischoff's famous painting uses planes of varying cool colors to suggest a scene awash with light, as if the element of air itself had become palpable. The figure positioned slightly below the central point of the image seems to be underwater, submerged in light, her form blurred while her dark hair and downward posture convey a mood of self-absorption and isolation. Her orange sweater becomes the point of focus and fulcrum of the painting's energies, drawing out the touches of yellow and orange which appear elsewhere, and focusing the viewer's attention on another figure, further back, wearing a mustard colored shirt. The blank ovoid of this figure's face suggests that it might be a mannequin, perhaps posed and leaning against a blackboard.
Bischoff's Orange Sweater is seen as one of the early masterpieces of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. The most obvious point of reference is Edward Hopper's interior scenes, which often contain isolated single figures, and generate the same impression of sub-aquatic isolation. The pearly light of Bischoff's Californian interior, whose luminosity pervades every inch of the room, does not quite offset a similar feeling. As the poet and art critic John Yau puts it, Bischoff "comes out of the tradition of American painting that includes Ryder and Hopper, both of whom believed that loneliness was an inescapable condition."
In the decade following the composition of Orange Sweater, Bischoff's style evolved. He began producing large-scale seascapes, bringing a symbolic complexity to his work, inspired by Albert Pinkham Ryder and the music of Richard Wagner. Pieces such as Figure at Window with Boat (1964), showing a woman looking out across a turbulent red and black marine-scape, seem to reflect the turbulent cultural mood of the early 1960s, while Figure, Boat, Clouds (1971) is reduced to just a few compositional elements, each of which takes on an almost mythic, archetypal quality.
Manuel Neri's expressionistic sculpture resembles a statue from antiquity in its partial erasure of limbs and appendage, as if it were an ancient artefact bearing the ravages of time. But the bright enamel paint that blotches and spills across its surface conveys a contrasting feeling of vitality, also creating a dynamic surface texture, animated by the gestural brushwork.
Among the Bay Area Figurative artists, Neri was the only major sculptor. He worked in plaster, an inexpensive and pliant material that allowed him to both build and subtract his forms. In essence, this material became his equivalent of paint as wielded by the expressionistic artist, allowing an emotionally-invested, tactile composition process that also took on more direct painterly aspects: as in his use of enamel paint on the surface of this work. Neri created a series of uniquely intense and compelling figurative forms during the heyday of the second-generation Bay Area Figurative Movement. As the art critic Hilton Kramer notes of this piece, "a basically painterly impulse may be seen to govern this sculpture even before the first touch of pigment is applied to its surface, [which] gives the work a very individual dynamism."
In its evident influence from classical statuary, and in its application of the techniques of post-abstract figuration to the realm of sculpture, Neri's work represents a vital addition to the Bay Area style of the 1950s-60s. Still working at 88, he is now a celebrated and garlanded modern American artist.
Useful Resources on Bay Area Figurative Movement
- 8k viewsPortrait of a Friendship: Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, and Bay Area Figurative ArtOur PickFine Arts Museums of San Francisco
- 6k viewsJohn Seed on the Legacy of Bay Area FigurationOur Pick
- 2k viewsDavid Park: A Personal Point of ViewOur PickHelen Park Bigelow at Richmond Art Center
- 58k viewsGretchen Diebenkorn Grant on the Life and Art of her Father Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley YearsFine Arts Museums of San Francisco
- 3k viewsThe Art of Joan BrownOur PickSan Jose Museum of Art
- 6k viewsArtist of the Week: Manuel NeriSan Jose Museum of Art
- Elmer Bischoff, The Berkeley Artist Breakfast ClubInterviewed by Guillermo Pulido
- Nathan Oliveira: Painting is beautiful and essentialSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art
- Joan Brown finds success in surpriseSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art
- Manuel Neri interviewedCalifornia Arts-in-Corrections Program
- 18k viewsPainting the Figure: David Park and Art in Postwar San FranciscoOur PickNancy Boas Yale University
- 31k viewsRichard Diebenkorn SymposiumFine Arts Museums of San Francisco
- Bay Area Figurative Art: 1950-1965Our PickBy Caroline A. Jones
- The Bay Area SchoolBy Thomas Williams and Michael Peppiatt
- Elmer Bischoff: The Ethics of PaintOur PickBy Susan Landauer with Bill Berkson
- David Park, Painter: Nothing Held BackBy Helen Park Bigelow
- Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years 1953-1966By Timothy Anglin Burgard, Steven Nash, and Emma Acker
- My God, what's happened to David?By Janet Bishop / San Francisco Museum of Art / January 4, 2010
- Art: 47 Figural Paintings of David Park on ViewBy Roberta Smith / New York Times / January 16, 1987
- Inventing San Francisco's art sceneRebecca Solnit / Queer Cultural Center / January 25, 2004
- The Tender Art of David ParkOur PickBy Sanford Schwartz / New York Review of Books / November 13, 2009
- Bridging the Coasts: Bay Area Figurative Painters at YaleBy John Seed / Hyperallergic / May 12, 2014
- Elmer Bischoff's Haunting Figurative PaintingsOur PickBy John Yau / Hyperallergic / July 12, 2015
- Elmer Bischoff, 'Figurative Paintings'By Ken Johnson / New York Times / July 2, 2015
- Into the Light: The Transformation of Joan BrownBy Abby Wasserman
- An Endless Succession of Roles: Joan Brown's Self-PortraitsBy Nicole Rudick / Hyperallergic / October 31, 2015