Bay Area Figurative Movement - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Bay Area Figurative Movement
California School of Fine Arts
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.
Steven A. Nash, curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, has stated: "[t]here is no more fabled chapter in the history of California Art than the audacious stand made by Bay Area Figurative painters against Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s." A legend has grown up around Park's destruction, in 1949, of his early, non-representational work. According to Nash, Park "gathered up all his abstract-expressionist canvases and, in an act that has gone down in local legend, drove to the Berkeley city dump and destroyed them." Feeling constrained by Abstract Expressionism's emphasis on non-figurative purity - as advocated by the leading theorist of the style, Clement Greenberg - Park began creating figurative works such as Rehearsal (1950), his first exhibited painting in the new style, which shows Park at the piano alongside the three other artist-musicians who made up the Studio 13 Jazz Band.
Of his new direction, Park stated: "I saw that if I would accept subjects, I could paint with more absorption, with a certain enthusiasm for the subject which would allow some of the aesthetic qualities such as color and composition to evolve more naturally. With subjects, the difference is that I feel a natural development of the painting rather than a formal, self-conscious one."
Kids on Bikes (1951)
In 1951, Park's painting Kids on Bikes (1950) made the news as a work which marked a dramatic break with Abstract Expressionism. Winning the 1951 San Francisco Art Association Annual competition, the painting shocked the art community with its naïve figurative style. As the artist Robert Bechtle has noted, "[m]ost of the artists were very committed to abstraction at that point", so that " [f]igurative work looked shockingly avant-garde." Two abstract artists, James McCray and Glenn Wessels, awarded the prize to Park, with Wessels noting that the painting's "color dynamic seemed to balance this deep perspective." He also noted the painting's distinction as "practically the only non-objective painting in the whole San Francisco Art Association Annual of that year which was not in the approved style of 'non-objectivism'."
The Bay Area Figurative Movement began to take shape around the attention and momentum generated by Kids on Bikes, with Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Richard Diebenkorn becoming the 'triumvirate' of the movement. Nonetheless, Bischoff and Diebenkorn were initially ambivalent about Park's new artistic direction, Bischoff describing Kids on Bikes as "pretty flat-footed [...] a sort of outlandish, goofy thing." Despite this assessment, both artists found new creative possibilities in the figurative approach defined by Park. Bischoff later recalled that "[w]e were startled, but the painting, right off, was stuff you couldn't deny, you couldn't dismiss it. It was very arresting, very powerful. It was a generous size in relation to what we were doing at the time and it appeared very sure of itself, very committed, very authoritative." Bischoff would later describe the movement not as being led by Park, but as defined by "mutual encouragement"; his own figurative works were first exhibited in the 1953 San Francisco Art Association Annual.
King Ubu and Six Gallery
The King Ubu Gallery was established in 1952, in a former auto-mechanic shop, by the poet Robert Duncan and the artists Harry Jacobus and Jess Collins (known simply as "Jess", one of the first artists to attach herself to the so-called Funk movement which grew out of the Bay Area Figurative style). The gallery took its name from Alfred Jarry's famous 1896 play Ubu Roi, and was similarly anarchist in its sympathies. A forum for the promotion of artistic diversity, adherent to no movement, the stated aim of the gallery, according to its founders, was to "mix it up." Only two other galleries committed to cutting-edge art existed in San Francisco at the time, and, as the critic Thomas Albright remarks, contemporary galleries in the Bay Area then had "the life expectancy of fruit flies." As a result, King Ubu became an important venue both for the promotion of Bay Area Figurative work - Bischoff held his first solo exhibition there in 1953 - and in establishing a uniquely diverse underground artistic culture in San Francisco. Though the gallery's existence was brief, its spirit endured through the launch of the Six Gallery in the same space.
The artist Wally Hedrick, along with Deborah Remington, John Ryan, Hayway King, David Simpson, and the poet Jack Spicer, launched the Six Gallery as an artist cooperative in 1954. The Bay Area Figurative artists Manuel Neri and Joan Brown were members of the group, as were various other local contemporary artists. Hedrick had become close friends with many of them as the banjo player in the Studio 13 Jazz Group. The critic Rebecca Solnit has stated that "[t]he jazz band, like the King Ubu and Six Galleries, was one of many gestures toward making a community and a culture. For what these artists realized is that before they could make art they had to make a culture in which it was possible to make art, and such a thing barely existed on the West Coast in their day. They did this by starting collective projects." The Six Gallery exhibited work across a range of styles, and, like the King Ubu Gallery, was committed to no particular movement, as indicated by Hedrick's particular role in an annual Bay Area art-world ritual: "there was a tradition for the Figurative painters - they were called the Figs - to play the Creepy Crawlers - who were the Abstract Expressionists - every year to see who was better [...] Every group would come up with a team, and I would be the umpire. I'm very proud of the fact that they would trust me. I mean, I had nothing to do with either style, and the fact was that they recognized that."
Six Gallery was also a literary hub, famous as the location of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg's first performance of "Howl" on October 7, 1955. A rambling, free-verse epic, "Howl" was a searing indictment of the repressive McCarthyite culture of 1950s North America, and became a foundational tract for both the Beat movement and the counter-culture of the 1960s. Manuel Neri helped to organize the event "6 Poets at 6 Gallery", an idea conceived by Hedrick. The Beat poets Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen read alongside Ginsberg, with poet and scholar Kenneth Rexroth introducing the group. The reading brought national and international attention to the gallery, helping to establish San Francisco as a center of counter-cultural ferment during the 1960s.
Studio 13 Jazz Band
Named after the classroom at California School of Fine Arts where they rehearsed and sometimes performed, the Studio 13 Jazz Band was established by David Park and Elmer Bischoff in 1952. Both of the founding members were teachers at the school, and had a deep and lifelong interest in jazz. Many other artists at this time were enthused by the Dixieland Jazz revival sweeping the country. School director Douglas MacAgy was the band drummer, with Park on piano, Bischoff on trumpet and cornet, and Wally Hedrick on banjo. The group performed at parties, art-openings, and monthly events at the Six Gallery, and continued performing into the late 1990s. As Hedrick stated humorously in 1996, "[w]e still play the same tunes. We've just gotten worse." The band became a point of connection between the Bay Area Figurative generation and the younger Beat and Funk artists of 1960s-70s San Francisco.
In 1957, the Oakland Art Museum held a major exhibition, Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting, which brought the work of Park, Bischoff, Diebenkorn, and other artists to national and international attention for the first time. As a result of the exhibition, their movement became nationally and to some extent globally renowned, with critics positing a new revolution in modern art on America's West Coast. The art critic Kenneth Baker described the Bay Area Figurative Movement as "the region's only modern art movement, so far, to gain global recognition."
Bischoff and Diebenkorn: The 1960s
With the untimely death of David Park from cancer in 1960, Bischoff and Diebenkorn became the de facto leaders of the Movement, and their practice and teaching were important influences on the generations of painters that followed. Diebenkorn's modernist sensibility drew upon a number of influences, including Piet Mondrian's grid compositions and Pierre Bonnard's vibrant color palette, but he transformed these influences with his figurative compositional sense. As the artist said, "I began to feel that what I was really up to in painting [...] was altering - changing what was before me - by way of subtracting or juxtaposition or superimposition of different ideas."
Bischoff's approach as both artist and teacher was very different, as exemplified by his statement: "[w]hat is most desired in the final outcome is a condition of form which dissolves all tangible facts into intangibles of feeling." His urban landscapes such as Orange Sweater (1955) are noted for conveying a powerful mood of isolation, while in his later seascapes, the landscape takes on a chaotic emotional force. As a tutor, according to art historian Bill Berkson, Bischoff extolled "the virtues of 'vague' as opposed to a too-clear partiality of image: above the attainable 'stamped-out' product, he favored the more arduous, open-ended personal search."
Bay Area Figurative Movement: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
The Bay Area Figurative Movement spanned the period from 1950 to 1970. The intervening twenty years has been broken down into three generations, the first generation followed by a bridge generation, and then the second generation.
The First Generation
The artists seen to define the first generation of the Bay Area Movement are David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Richard Diebenkorn, all of whom began their careers as Abstract Expressionist painters. While their figurative work continued to employ the gestural brushwork and other stylistic traits of Abstract Expressionism, in many respects they worked in conscious opposition to the style. Park, in particular, posited what he called an "anti-style" opposed to the idea of abstract purity, announcing that he wanted to create "pictures," not "paintings." Each of the three artists had a distinct approach, however, and their ideas were never resolved into the clarity of a single ethos. Diebenkorn, in particular, remained deeply interested in the rigor and challenge of modernist composition, while Bischoff explored influences such as Edward Hopper, and the Symbolist work of Edvard Munch and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Poet and art critic Bill Berkson summed up the differences between the three artists by stating that "[i]f David Park was the classicist of the founding triad [...] and Richard Diebenkorn the modernist, Bischoff was the romantic."
The bridge generation included the artists Paul Wonner, Roland Petersen, Frank Lobdell, Theophilus Brown, John Hultberg, and Nathan Oliveira. The talismanic presence of Park, Bischoff and Diebenkorn at the California School of Fine Arts had a profound effect on the San Francisco art world, and the bridge generation primarily constituted a group of artistic peers who built upon their example. Lobdell began teaching at the California School in 1957, and in 1959 joined the weekly drawing sessions held by Park, Diebenkorn, and Bischoff. Roland Petersen became best-known for his so-called 'Picnic Series' (1962-70), with works such as April Picnic (1962) showing figures on a hilltop overlooking a landscape broken up into small planes of complementary colors. While Lobdell persevered with an abstract approach through works such as Ascent (Red) (1962), he became renowned for his figurative drawings. Brown and Wonner were Abstract Expressionists who began exploring figuration in the mid-1950s. Brown became renowned for his depiction of the human figure in works such as Untitled (Nude with Trellis & Landscape) (1961), using sweeping brushstrokes and a vivid and strange color palette. The bridge generation helped to expand the formal scope of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Oliveira, for example, was a sculptor and lithographer, while Petersen was a renowned printmaker.
The Second Generation
The second generation consisted of the painters Joan Brown, Robert Qualters, Henry Villierme, and Bruce McGaw, and the sculptor Manuel Neri. Many of the second-generation artists were students at the California School of Fine Arts, where they were tutored by Park, Bischoff, Diebenkorn, and Lobdell. Bischoff, for instance, became a longtime mentor to Joan Brown, after she attended his summer classes. At the same time, the second generation brought a new stylistic and thematic range to the movement. Henry Villierme, newly arrived in the Bay Area, became a rising star within the movement when, in 1957, he won a Richmond, California exhibition prize, beating out Diebenkorn, Oliveira, and Park. Works of Villierme's such as Landscape (1956) use an aerial perspective to depict Northern Californian farmland in richly colored geometric planes. Neri, the only major sculptor associated with the group, applied painterly touches to his plaster figures to create innovative three-dimensional forms, while Brown brought a new hipness and vigor to her figurative paintings. By the time the second generation came to maturity in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the San Francisco counter-culture was also beginning to flower. As a result, the artists of the Bay Area Figurative Movement were increasingly influenced by pop culture and new age ideas rather than defining their work solely in opposition to Abstract Expressionism.
Later Developments - After Bay Area Figurative Movement
During the late 1950s and 1960s, the Bay Area Figurative Movement had a significant influence on many aspects of Bay Area culture, including the underground Funk Art movement, which also foregrounded representational art, and the San Francisco Beat Movement, which had extensive connections to the local art world. The Pop Art of Wayne Thiebaud was also influenced by David Park and other Bay Area Figurative artists.
The movement began to decline as a cohesive force around 1970, after Diebenkorn and Bischoff returned to creating abstract work. Other artists associated with the movement also moved in new directions, with Paul Wonner turning to still lifes in a hyper-realistic style. Joan Brown's representational work began to incorporate elements of surrealism, pop culture, and myth, often with an underlying feminist impetus. Her focus on domestic imagery and self-portraiture made her a figurehead for the feminist art movement of the 1970s.
Many of the artists associated with the Bay Area Figurative Movement became noted teachers, working at the University of California in Berkeley, or at Stanford University, thus influencing subsequent generations of artists. Peri Schwartz, Jenny Nelson, Ryoko Tajiri, Daniel Ochoa, and Suhas Bhujbal are amongst various contemporary artists drawing upon aspects of the movement. The artist Kim Frohsin blends elements of the Bay Area Figurative style with nostalgic pop-culture elements, while Mitchell Johnson deploys colored geometric shapes reminiscent of the Bay Area Figurative style in pieces such as Torrenieri (2011). The movement also had an international impact, influencing artists such as the Spanish Eduardo Albarado, the Indian Siddharth Parasnis, and the Polish Waldemar Mitrowski.