Monday, October 12, 2020

David Park at SFMOMA

With some trepidation, we ventured to the newly reopened SFMOMA on Friday for a marvelous retrospective of the Bay Area artist David Park (1911-1960). At the museum entrance, I was told that my ubiquitous red bandana was not safe enough, so they offered a free, comfortable, SFMOMA branded cloth mask that looked like a psychedelic bikini bottom. (Pictured above: Canoe, 1957.)
The galleries turned out to be blessedly uncrowded and the masked art lovers were unfailingly considerate in keeping their distance from each other.
Born in Boston in 1911, Park moved to California as a teenager, living with a Bohemian aunt in Los Angeles, and then moving to Berkeley where he studied at the SF Art Institute. (Pictured above: Receiving Pay Cheques, 3000 Men Building a Reservoir Near Balboa Park, San Francisco, 1933.)
The young Park worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera when he was in San Francisco, and there are a number of pictures in the exhibit that are heavily influenced by the Mexican muralist's style. (Pictured above: Boston Common, 1935.)
Park, along with his wife and two daughters, returned to Boston in the second half of the 1930s for a teaching stint at a girls' school, and he became fascinated by Picasso, as you can see in the painting above. (Pictured above: Violin and Cello, 1939.)
He soon realized that his close circle of artistic friends and colleagues were in California, so he returned to Berkeley during the 1940s where he painted Abstract Expressionist paintings in the approved style at the time for serious American artists. (Pictured above: Untitled (J), 1948.)
In 1949 he famously took a batch of his own abstract paintings to the city dump and spent the next decade working in an expressive figurative style that looked backward and forward in art history, but was all his own. His friend Richard Diebenkorn was reported to have remarked upon seeing the 1950 Kids on Bikes above, "My God, what's happened to David?"
Instead of shunning Park for his abstraction apostasy, Diebenkorn and quite a few other major Bay Area artists ended up joining him in what eventually become known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement. (Pictured above: Nudes by a River, 1954.)
The vast bulk of the exhibit consists of these paintings of the 1950s, each one as inventive and stirring as the next.
This burst of sustained artistic accomplishment came to an end in 1960 when Park died of cancer at age 49. (Pictured above: Couple in a Landscape, 1959.)
Over the years I have seen Bay Area Figurative Movement exhibits at various museums, and there would usually be a couple of paintings which stood out. Invariably they would turn out to be the work of David Park. This large exhibit, organized by Janet Bishop at SFMOMA, makes clear that his work is not only standing the test of time, but is still influential. (Pictured above: Untitled (Berkeley Figures), 1959.)
In the final room of the exhibit are a couple dozen gouache drawings from his final year, including Male Bathers, 1960. In a fascinating post by artist Robert Borkl entitled “Queering” David Park: Is It Fair to see Homoerotic Subtexts in Park’s imagery?, he writes: "David Park died in 1960, age 49. By all accounts, he was happily married to Lydia Park (later Lydia Park Moore), who was appreciative and supportive of his art, and the father of two daughters...But why must these critics, curators, and biographers place Park on such a chaste, hetero-normative, binary pedestal, as if we were still living in Park’s most productive period—the 1950s? I’ve always been amused and cheered by Park’s rendition of what could be interpreted as outdoor gay cruising scenes, nude boys at beaches, young men walking purposefully in the underbrush, and other same sex groupings. I wouldn’t describe any of his nudes, male or female, as prurient, but they’re not shy either."
On the second floor, there is a companion exhibit, David Park and His Circle: The Drawing Sessions. Bay Area artists started meeting together at each other's studios in 1953 for weekly working sessions, usually with a nude male or female model. Unfortunately, the rooms in these galleries are smaller and too crowded for a feeling of pandemic safety, so we did not stay long.
That's too bad, because it's an absorbing exhibit. Part of the fun is seeing the same model being drawn by different artists. Above is Page Schorer, son of the UC Berkeley literary biographer Mark Schorer, in a drawing by David Park (left) and Richard Diebenkorn (right).
They also drew each other, as you can see from Elmer Bischoff's portraits of Diebenkorn (left) and Park (right). The exhibits are up through mid-January and the museum is offering free admission as part of its safety-enhanced reopening until October 18th. Go to their website and order a timed reservation now.

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