series featuring contributions to life made by notable
American Unitarians honors in this article the son of
Charles Edward Park, the Unitarian Minister of the First
Church in Boston. David Park was a rebel against his inherited
faith. After years of struggle to express himself in the
visual arts, he left a visible legacy of liberal religious
affirmation, which is here portrayed.
David Park once remarked that "a man's work should
be quite independent of him and possibly much more wonderful."
He made this statement when he realized his Abstract Expressionist
paintings had proven to be a mode of self-indulgence.
"To me it was clear that when I aimed to fulfill
the grand ideals all that the painting did was to record
the vulgar gesture of a finger pointing." This epitomizes
Park's lifelong attitude toward any form of pretense.
A debunker rather than an iconoclast, he could paradoxically
bring things into perspective either through his barbed
wit and his sense of the ridiculous, or through warm,
Park grew up in the highly cultivated, structured environment
of a model Boston family. His two brothers and sister
fit comfortably into the mold, but David's situation was
always slightly off. His brother Dick, who was closest
in age, excelled at sports, but David preferred to look
for "neat" places in odd alleyways in Boston
or mossy openings deep in the New Hampshire woods. Sometimes
he could entice his younger brother Ted to join him in
these explorations through his own irrepressible enthusiasm.
For the most part he simply ignored what disinterested
him, which included school, church and athletics, focusing
his attention on drawing, painting, making puppet shows
and playing the piano.
He enjoyed visiting an aunt, Edith Truesdell, his father's
sister in Petersborough, Massachusetts. An artist herself,
she encouraged the boy and at the same time aided the
family in understanding his non-conformist attitude. But
the greatest question in David's mind was whether to pursue
music or painting.
father, a kind but self-disciplined Unitarian minister,
periodically found himself at odds with a son who showed
little or no interest in shared family activities. Although
David would never come to accept any formal teaching of
the church, in later years the two men developed a mutual
respect for each other's position. He humorously, but
affectionately, would refer to "Our Father who art
failure to graduate from high school caused a serious
dilemma and probably some embarrassment to his parents.
Edith Truesdell received the news in Denver where she
was spending six weeks painting and studying while her
husband completed a business project in the area. She
wrote Mrs. Park and suggested they send David for the
final week to Denver, and then they would all motor back
to Hollywood, where the Truesdells then resided. The Parks
agreed and David was sent out to Colorado.
When he finally arrived on the West Coast to find a casual
environment where the serious pursuit of art was not only
accepted but encouraged, life had unquestionably begun
He enrolled at Otis Art Institute, where he studied the
methods taught in life drawing, particularly the manner
of moving rapidly around the model making quick sketches
almost the way a photographer would take fast candid shots
from all angles.
When the semester was over, Park was reluctant to return
to Boston so Edith suggested he take summer classes at
the University of California, Berkeley. He moved to San
Francisco and enrolled, but it is doubted that he did
any serious studying. His gregarious personality helped
him fit easily into the artist's world and he soon began
sharing quarters with another young artist, Gordon Newell.
Together they found work as stone cutters assisting sculptor
Ralph Stackpole. Eventually Park worked on and designed
some murals and tapestries, done in the typical style
of the Depression years.
The wonder of his new life style and freedom to paint
was liberating, yet there were certain facets of Park's
heritage that were not going to fade. Despite his rebellious
attitude toward the "status quo" he needed a
family and a home, and he would always enjoy the stimulation
of cultivated minds. When Gordon's sister Lydia arrived
on the scene, a presence was added that was to become
a major factor in Park's life. Lydia's quiet dedication
and belief in his work would provide a strong continuity
throughout the years. They were married in 1930 and by
1933 they had two daughters, Natalie and Helen. Lydia
was able to maintain a family environment without interfering
with his creativity.
Violinists and Dancers,
with a family to care for, Park had to find a more dependable
means of support, which was exceedingly difficult in those
Depression years. Edith Truesdell managed to arrange a
position at the Winsor School for Girls in Boston, so
the Parks went east for a period of four years. It was
a pleasant enough jobDavid always enjoyed teachingbut
life was so uneventful that they finally decided to return
to California and take their chances.
World War II was now in full force and Park went to work
for the General Cable Co. in Emeryville. He remained there
working the night shift for the duration of the war. He
gradually reestablished contact with the art world and
began teaching part time at the San Francisco Museum of
Art and the California School of Fine Arts.
By now he was drawn toward the potentiality of Abstract
Expressionism. Park was given a full-time position along
with his colleagues Hassel Smith, Elmer Bischoff and the
young Richard Diebenkorn. Together they plunged further
into the Abstract Expressionist tide.
They would usually gather at the end of the day, often
in Park's studio situated high in the tower of the school,
to discuss their work or maybe just enjoy each other's
company. When Park was not teaching a class, he would
generally paint until there was no light.
Mills quotes Bischoff as saying, "David was keen
about Abstract Expressionism as long as it had the immediacy
and tangibility and goopy sensuous arrangement of forms,
but when it got into the very serious 'views of the cosmos'
he didn't go along with that."
" I was concerned with big abstract ideas like vitality,
energy, profundity, warmth. They became my gods. They
still are. I disciplined myself rigidly to work in ways
I hoped might symbolize these ideals. I still hold these
ideals today, but I realize that those paintings never,
even vaguely, approximated any achievement of my aims.
At the end of 1949 David Park gathered the fruits of the
labors of the past four years, a large number of abstract
paintings, and took them to the city dump. This sudden
abandonment of Abstract Expressionism (but not Action
Painting) was the dramatic first step toward a completely
personal statement. All his life he had scorned convention,
yet until this time he seemed to be satisfied to stay
within the bounds of current vanguard movement.
Now he could accept his inner dissatisfaction with his
own non-objective work. Although it was his habit automatically
to reject past work, believing that only what he was thinking
now was "good," he knew this time he had come
to a major turning point. He would retain the action painting
aspect of Abstract Expressionism but return to the figure
in order to pursue his intense desire to make a painting
an "extension of human life."
(detail, first one-third), 1960.
was no gradual easing of the figure back into the work.
The first paintings were so straightforward in their imagery
they shocked his colleagues. The initial reaction was
that he had taken a step backward, that he had "chickened
out." Kids on Bikes was accepted in the
San Francisco Art Association's annual exhibition and
given a prize. Ironically it was reproduced in the newspapers
but received no comment. When Diebenkorn, who was teaching
in New Mexico at the time, saw the reproduction, he said,
"My God, what's happened to David!" Bischoff
described it as a "pretty flat-footed painting."
The change not only set David apart in his work, but certain
controversial and financial difficulties had risen at
the school causing much unrest. When Hassel Smith was
dismissed, Bischoff and Park resigned. Bischoff moved
to Marysville, California, but Park remained in Berkeley,
once again unemployed. He tried his hand at odd jobs such
as putting in window displays in liquor stores, but finally
Lydia could no longer tolerate the idea of his spending
energy on mundane and "humiliating jobs" so
she established what David called the, "Lydia Park
Fellowship" by going to work herself, enabling him
to paint full time. It was a struggle to live and work
in the same cramped quarters, but it aIso seemed to agree
with Park's stubborn natureand love of going out
on a limb. He courageously pushed forward his own concepts
beyond the bounds of any recognized style. Diebenkorn
and Bischoff returned to the area and began to feel Park's
influence, and soon the three were closely involved. In
their work the interaction of ideas and switchbacks in
counter influences would fluctuate, but in their personal
relationships a deep bond was established that would remain
Park's appointment to the faculty of the University of
California at Berkeley in 1955 relieved the problem of
financial security. It must have also tickled his keen
sense of the absurd to think he had achieved this highly
respected position without the aid of the most fundamental
credentials. He preferred the company of writers, composers
and members of the English and History departments at
the university, which included such intellectuals as Mark
Schorer, Stephen Pepper and Herschel Chipp. He had an
intense interest in music that ranged from Bach to jazz,
and he spent many hours attending concerts, listening
to recordings and playing duets with his friend Bertrand
"Bud" Bronson. Two of his close friends were
Howard and Dorothy Baker. Dorothy had written Young
Man with a Horn and she and David enjoyed a running
discussion as to the comparable merits of Bix Beiderbecke
and Red Nichols.
He was naturally drawn to the vigor and freedom of improvisational
jazz. For a while he belonged to a band composed of Douglas
McAgy on drums, Charlie Clark on clarinet, John Schueler
on bass, Elmer Bischoff on trumpet, Conrad Janis (Sidney's
son) on trombone, and David on the piano, but was forced
to discontinue when he could no longer stand the long
sessions due to a growing back problem.
As his painting style continued to unfold, the subject
matter seldom veered from domestic life, music and certain
childhood memories. The human experience and the very
existence of the phenomenal world was enough. He had no
time for esoteric distractions . . . "I have found
that in accepting and immersing myself in subject matter
I paint with more intensity and that the 'hows' of painting
are more inevitably determined by the 'whats.' I believe
that my work has become freer of arbitrary mannerisms....
" Though he generally dwelt on the more pleasant
activities in life, he always avoided the sentimental.
"He was passionate but frowned on sentimentality."
He did not paint directly from the model nor did he go
out in the field and paint from nature. The work was done
in the studio and the subject matter usually taken from
memory. He had an uncanny capacity for observation, whether
it was sitting around with friends, or perhaps watching
Lydia sew or read, or picnicking in the country, or observing
musicians and dancers. He would mentally record these
images, as a writer notes an incident and personality
for some future novel or an actor collects bits of "business"
and stores them away for different characterizations.
Later, the remembered images would be models for a painting.
The university years were a productive time. He moved
his family into a comfortable redwood house in the Berkeley
hills. There was a studio on the top floor with a skylight
and fireplace and a view of the bay. Life-drawing sessions
were reestablished. He began the large bather paintings
which were the precursors of the nudes. He participated
in the major exhibition that was to establish a new movement,
Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting, organized by
Paul Mills, who was curator at The Oakland Museum at the
The joy of this progress was gradually marred by the continual
back pain. He was in the habit of working long hours in
his studio, but his power of endurance was weakening as
the increasing pain was forcing him to cut the time span
of these work periods progressively. This did not, however,
dilute the quality and intensity of the work. When he
could no longer climb the stairs to his studio, his friends
constructed an easel where he could sit and work in the
He underwent a disc operation in November of 1959 which,
it was hoped, would alleviate the problem. While recuperating
he did a number of drawings with a new discovery, felt
tip pens. He ran out of paper one day and Lydia, unable
to locate anything else at the time, gave him a roll of
shelf paper thinking he could cut off sections as needed.
Instead he started drawing at the beginning of the roll
and continued to the end, making a thirty foot-long continuous
sketch which Paul Mills compares to a jazz improvisation.
Once again he incorporated memories of his Boston childhood
with more recent campus scenes. The scroll was purchased
by Mrs. Benjamin H. Lehman and given to the university
where it is permanently installed in Zellerbach Hall.
In February of 1960 a second operation was performed.
This time the diagnosis was terminal cancer. True to style,
Park announced the news to his friends, declared his anger
over the plight, and indicated that he would paint and
fight for time as long as possible. The gouaches that
were produced over the next few months proved that Park
had truly returned to himself. They are infused with vitality,
profundity, energy and warmth: his "gods."
David Park died September 20, 1960. Since that time we
have experienced a number of art movements including Minimal,
Pop, Color Field, California Cool, New and Photo Realism.
We are now in a period of no dominant trends, unless the
trend is Individuality. From this perspective we can quite
comfortably accept Park's rebellion, not as a failure
of nerve, but as an individual stepping outside a confined
It was not that easy in 1950.
Abridged from the catalog of a retrospective exhibition
at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, California,
1977 and the Oakland Museum, Oakland California, 1978.