Sunday, May 6th, 2012

David Park: “The Colors Took My Gaze for a Ride”

Helen Park Bigelow’s David Park, Painter: Nothing Held Back and Nancy Boas’s David Park: A Painter’s Life

Of these two generously illustrated biographies of the wonderful mid-20th-century painter David Park, the first, from three years ago, is by the elder of Park’s two daughters, and the second, newly published, is by an expert historian of modern art in California. Read in tandem, they are distinct and complement each other perfectly.

Helen Park Bigelow’s is a family memoir, in which her father and the paintings of his that mean the most to her are central but not the only active characters. She has good stories to tell and zigzags apace from one to the next; she chats, surmises and casts a wide, sympathetic gaze on almost everyone within range. Her responses to the pictures are instinctive and often eloquent. About Park’s late-1940s abstractions, she recalls, “It was as if the colors took my gaze for a ride, made it travel all over the terrain with no guidance from me,” while the figures in the late-50s pictures, are “heavy with being.”

David Park, Head of Lydia, 1953. Oil on canvas, 25 x 24 inches.  Reproduced in Helen Park Bigelow’s book reviewed in this article
David Park, Head of Lydia, 1953. Oil on canvas, 25 x 24 inches. Reproduced in Helen Park Bigelow’s book reviewed in this article

Nancy Boas’s book also is sympathetic, though more impersonal, a balanced and analytical account; her passion shows in how persuasively she argues for a wider recognition of Park’s importance as more than the locally esteemed leader of the Bay Area Figuratives, which now in any case seems on the way. (A couple of years ago, complaining of the New York art scene’s general shallowness and offering a number of suggestions for heightened perspicacity on the part of local curators, Roberta Smith wrote that Park “could do with another New York retrospective. He’s the kind of artist who can light a fire under a young artist and also teach the public a great deal about looking at painting.”) Boas moves readily from moment to moment of the life and work, her telling quickened on nearly every page by revealing quotations from Park’s friends and colleagues––viz., Elmer Bischoff ‘s description of Park around 1946, when he was in his mid-30s, having recently joined the full-time faculty at the California School of Fine Arts and a few years short of realizing his true originality as a painter: “He had a powerful, sculpted head and a large, Martha Raye mouth. . . . His eyes were prominent and bulged bit.” Park’s attire, Bischoff concludes, was “casual academic.”

Park was born in Boston in 1911 and died in his California home at age 49, in 1960. Both Bigelow’s and Boas’s narratives start from his childhood in and outside of the confines of a genteel Back Bay family, the “outside” part being his absorption–– inviolable from the get-go, it seems––in painting, playing the piano and wandering in “secret places,” those woodlands and waterways where he developed what soon would become manifest as his extraordinary skills of observation and memory. To Boas, Bischoff also passed along a joke Park liked to tell that illustrates how briskly he had separated himself from his upbringing––his father’s parlor-size Unitarianism, in particular––and something of his attitude toward art making, as well:

Some Christians . . . . died and went the other side and came to a fork in the road. One of the signs said ‘To Heaven,’ and the other sign said ‘To a Lecture on Heaven,’ and they all went to the second one.

By age twelve Park was producing drawings and watercolors of figures in idyllic settings, imagery that would recur throughout his career but most tellingly in the extravagantly lathered paintings of his last few years, those works Boas sees properly as “integrating people and nature and paint.” (Among Boas’s illustrations is a painting called Man and Woman Reclining, made when Park was twenty-six, that shows him already capable of the deep sensuality that is a major part of his late work’s power.) By the time he left for California, a seventeen-year-old prep-school dropout, he was pretty much a committed artist. (“The East was never my medium,” he said, in a characteristic word-choice twist.) In 1930 he married his friend Gordon Newell’s sister Lydia, whose vivacity and affection and all-out support for her husband’s art were subverted periodically by migraines and depression––a mix that, along with the heavy drinking that was endemic at the time, both Bigelow and Boas handle candidly while taking care not to overdramatize it.

A glimpse of how, on occasion, love and art could dovetail in Park’s sensibility comes from an interview by Boas of one of his lifelong friends:

He said that the night before, when Lydia was undressing, she pulled off her slip, and the slip was in that electrified stage that some slips sometimes get into, and that as she pulled it over her, suddenly the electricity, the light, flickered across, so that her whole body was outlined in shadow against the slip, and he was just overcome by how beautiful it was. The scene was tremendous to him––the light that showed off the figure. He spoke almost in a tone of reverence . . . .  I think it was partly that his love for her shone through. I always remember his speaking of it. It was a visual experience for him which had great emotion.”

Bigelow, too, tells how her father “collected light, like the thin cast of blue as he went up and down the steps of the house in Boston where he was born.” Park, she writes, “reached into his repertoire of light,” applying it to the work at hand. Right there the terms become clearer of that peculiar equation his astonishingly straight-ahead art proposes: Bodies plus light make life.

Helen Park Bigelow, David Park, Painter: Nothing Held Back (Manchester and New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2009). Foreword by Richard Armstrong. ISBN 978-1-55595-320-1. 207 pages. $60.

Nancy Boas, David Park: A Painter’s Life (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2012).  ISBN 978-0-520-26841-8. 357 pages. $49.95.

David Park, Women in a Landscape, 1958.  Oil on canvas, 50 x 56 inches. Courtesy of Oakland Museum of California
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Photograph of David Park at his Easel, 1958, by Imogen Cunningham.  Reproduced in Helen Park Bigelow’s book reviewed in this article
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