David Park, American (1911 - 1960)

David Park (1911–1960) is responsible for helping to develop one of the most vital and inventive shifts in American postwar art. His reassertion, in the 1950s, of the primacy of the figure within abstraction initiated a return to figuration that continues to impact American painting today.

Born in Boston in 1911, Park moved to California at the behest of a favorite aunt to attend the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. By 1943, he had moved to San Francisco and began teaching at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). In 1949, at the age of 39, he destroyed all of his abstract, nonobjective paintings from the forties and began work on what are now called his “New Figurative” paintings. Park's abandonment of pure abstraction in favor of figuration was fostered by a dissatisfaction with what he perceived to be the egocentric excesses of abstract expressionist artists. His return to traditional subject matter did not inhibit the formal challenges he set for himself; Park's works are defined by unconventional spatial relationships, a flattened picture plane, shocking color, and a liberal, sensuous use of paint —all based on his experience with non-objective painting.

In 1950, Park shocked his peers with the exhibition of Kids on Bikes (1950), an essentially abstract painting with two unmistakably figurative elements—two boys and their bicycles. Thus, he introduced the style that would later be known as Bay Area Figurative Painting, a term coined by curator Paul Mills in his 1957 Oakland Museum exhibition of the same name.1 Park's heraldic shift was soon followed by fellow artists and teachers Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, and their works influenced scores of others and begat what became a distinctive west coast style of expression.

Subject was of paramount importance to Park, and he depicted the commonplace, everyday activities of human life; many of his paintings center on his wife Lydia and domestic life, music, and children at play. He did not paint from nature and relied on his memory when painting in the studio. Park believed that “the 'hows' of painting are more inevitably determined by the 'whats.'” In this way, Park's work manages to convey an essential humanity while avoiding sentimentality.

Park's mature figurative period lasted only a decade. In 1960, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. That summer, despite intense pain, he managed to paint over 100 small gouaches in ten weeks prior to his death. These vividly colored, spontaneous yet poignant works are a moving testimony to Park's supremacy as a painter.

David Park's paintings are featured in major museum collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Oakland Museum of California. Hackett-Freedman Gallery is the exclusive representative of the artist's estate.

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