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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, genuine enthusiasm.
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.
His 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 in Boston.”
David’s 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 anew.
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.
But 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 job—David always enjoyed teaching—but 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.”
There 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 nature—and 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 constant.
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 time.
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 living room.
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 circle.
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.
Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
Mills, Paul. The New Figurative Art of David Park. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1988.
Turnbull, Betty. David Park: 1911-1960. Newport Beach, CA: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1977.