OPENINGS hired models, both male and female, and sometimes sketched each other. Even though his work was figurative, he almost never painted directly from a model. But the drawing sessions were so important, both in terms of his ongoing engagement with the figure, but also for the camaraderie. The friendships within the group ultimately had a big effect on the various participants’ respective practices. Richard Diebenkorn, for instance, once said that if he’d been intending to continue as an abstract painter during that time, he was consorting with the wrong company! CB: Were his monumental figurative canvases developed directly from these studies or were they reinterpretations? JB: In a few cases, there’s a direct connection between something he drew and the composition of a painting, such as the great Bather with Knee Up, which was based on the drawing of a family friend who posed for the group. But the relationship was typically more indirect. Park had a deep appreciation for human form, an incredible visual memory, and an expansive imagination. His compositions for paintings generally evolved directly on the canvas. If he didn’t like something, he didn’t hesitate to scrape it away or paint over it. CB: The exhibition will feature a gallery dedicated to the other Bay Area artists who returned to the figure including Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Manuel Neri, and Nathan Oliveira... JB: I’m excited that the exhibition includes a gallery devoted to the Bay Area Figurative drawing sessions held by Park and his peers, placing Park into a creative context that meant a great deal to him. When he was working on canvas, Park was almost always in his studio alone. CB: I understand that the exhibition will include works from the phase when the artist was experimenting with a non-objective vocabulary. JB: Park painted abstractly for a few years after the war, when abstraction was the dominant mode of painterly expression among progressive American painters. He got some recognition for that work, but it never felt authentic to him. There’s a great quote where he describes his abstract efforts as those of “a hard-working guy who was trying to be important.” It’s exciting to be able to bring together all of the known surviving examples of his non-objective paintings in this show. Visitors to the exhibition will have a much better sense of what he was reacting to when he abruptly switched to a new figurative style. CB: In 1949 and 1950, he literally jettisoned his abstract paintings into the city dump and went back to figuration. Is this analogous to Philip Guston’s return to representational imagery, informed by gestural abstraction, during the last ten years of his life? JB: Park and Guston both bucked the tide by switching to figurative painting when it was out of vogue. They painted what they wanted to paint, without a need to conform. One of the galleries at The Modern will show Park’s abstract paintings on one side, and his first new figurative paintings on the other. So visitors will be able to see the relationships in color, composition, and paint handling in canvases from the late 1940s and early 1950s, before and after the big shift. Park didn’t let loose as a gestural painter until later in the decade. His late 1950s figurative canvases clearly connect to Abstract Expressionist gestural abstraction but are far more expressive than anything he was able to achieve himself as an abstract expressionist. He had found Abstract Expressionism so constraining, but it ultimately set him free. CB: Park’s students range from everyone from fellow abstractionist–turned– brushy realist Richard Diebenkorn to the future Earthworks pioneer Walter De Maria. Can you expound on his inspirational teaching methods? JB: For someone who dropped out of boarding school without graduating and only took a few college level art classes, it’s amazing
that Park ended up being such a gifted educator. I wish you were in the Bay Area, as the Anderson Collection is hosting a conversation on this very topic on April 25, before their great 1959 painting Four Women ships to Fort Worth for the show. It will include Park’s former student Tom Holland. Park had a genuine wish to connect with his students, a very open attitude, and encouraged his students on their own paths. He spent a lot of time looking at work in progress with his students, discussing what could make a painting better. And, importantly, he didn’t feel a need to maintain traditional barriers between faculty and student. This no doubt had to do with the fact that many of his students at the California School of Fine Arts in the late 1940s, including Diebenkorn, were returning vets, studying on the G.I. Bill. So, they were older and more mature than typical undergraduates. CB: Several years after the artist’s death in 1960, the Bay Area artists Peter Saul and Zap Comix founder Robert Crumb created perhaps the most uniquely American approach to the figure. Do you have any sense of how Park would have responded to their work? JB: Interesting question. Park had a great sense of humor, and his correspondence to friends and family is peppered with very funny, sometimes satirical drawings. I suspect he would have an appreciation for their work, as different as it is from his own. CB: Do you attribute Park’s influence on the renewed interest in figurative painting within contemporary art? JB: I’ve been heartened to learn that there’s a broad range of contemporary artists who are passionate about Park today, not only figurative painters, but Jeff Wall, for instance, who is best known for his photograph tableaux, and Alicia McCarthy, who paints loose, colorful, pattern-based abstractions. P
David Park, Rehearsal, ca. 1949-50, oil on canvas, 46 x 35.75 in. Oakland Museum of California, Gift of the Anonymous Donor Program of the American Federation of Arts.