Go figure

California's figurative painters brought the body back into art.

In the waning summer of 1949, David Park loaded up his car with his non-objective paintings, drove to a Berkeley dump, and hurled them in. Park was a leading figure in abstract expressionism, and his action marked a decisive break with that movement. This exhibit, curated by Rhonda Lane Howard, explores Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and other Bay Area painters associated with figurative subject matter. It is one of the richest, most sensual shows of the year. Let eggs fry and dogs pant in the heat—go visit the Henry, and luxuriate in the verdant shade of 1950s California.

Views from the Bay Area: The Shift Toward Figuration

Henry Art Gallery, through October 4

Abstract expressionism was seen as the aesthetic equivalent of America entering World War II: a force so strong it would revitalize art the world over. Park, Diebenkorn, and Bischoff, all associated with the California School of Fine Arts, shared in the bold abstractions and striking compositions of East Coast abstract expressionist artists such as Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning, and Clyfford Still.

But by 1952, the West Coast artists had grown restless. Their strong work ethic conflicted with abstract expressionism's faith in instant results. When Pollock dribbled his subconscious essence on the canvas, was this genuine expression or simply arrogant narcissism? Besides, spontaneous "action paintings" did not allow for the careful working and reworking of the surface that their painterly craftsmanship demanded.

Abstract expressionism had charged the dead batteries of painting by a metaphysical turn inward to emotion. But, for some painters, the high-voltage charge of subconscious material on which abstract expressionism drew had run out of juice. It was time for a change. Park, recalling his WPA work and the influence of Diego Rivera, felt that human subjects would allow a more natural development of a painting's color and composition.

Breaking with the movement was not an easy decision for Park and Bischoff. Both had relatively secure incomes from teaching at the CSFA. Park took a job arranging liquor-store window displays; Bischoff became a railroad laborer, drawing pictures on his lunch hour. They were blue-collar artists, with day jobs, who drank beer, played Dixieland jazz around town, and argued passionately about their new direction. They rescued an old tool—life drawing—to hone their skills for the new challenge of figurative subject matter.

Park dumped his canvases, but you can see how he and the others reclaimed and re-used abstract expressionistic elements. The surfaces of their work still show gestural freedom and thick, textural paint; the electric, intense color is still there; each aspect of the canvas is charged and plays a vital role. Your eye may be first directed to the recognizable subjects: people, pools, and palm trees—but then you pick up the tension between the familiar figure and abstract background. Like the optical illusion—is it a vase or twin sisters?—seeing itself becomes dynamic.

When abstract expressionist art first appeared, either you loathed it or you hated it. Then, like other American artistic rebellions, it was absorbed, understood, celebrated, and, to some extent, domesticated. But if abstract expressionism was a paper leopard in the parlor, its spots seemed to have spread to the house cat. This new reversion to recognizable subjects confused the critics. Human beings, the fundamental topic of art, were revived, but in strange contexts: rooms blurred into landscapes, surfaces had minds of their own, and figures possessed a disquieting nonchalance. In Park's House on Santa Barbara Road, Window, the human figure doubles as the interior outline of the space. You can see the sacrifices figurativism demanded from its subjects: missing arms, blocks for heads; lopsided, puzzled smiles, like children's half-formed clay people.

Most exhibits often choose easy answers to the question of how to relate artists to art history: The artist is either a solitary genius or a helpless fish, part of an historical school. The harder answer is that art history, like all history, is chronological, but not linear; not a family tree, but a web of influence. Howard's exhibit does not simplify the efforts of these artists; nor does it minimize their work. "Other exhibits focus on the paintings—the finished product," she explains. "I wanted this exhibit to trace for the viewer the same progression the artist saw: a development of the work from sketchbook, to informal drawing, to the painting."

Works are carefully juxtaposed, making the strands in the web of mutual influence clearly visible. Joan Brown's study of a nude, in ink, graphite, and collage is next to a page from Park's working sketchbook no. 3. The two pieces share strong graphic elements, and generally, there are important similarities between all these artists: in structure, spatial relations, surface tension, line, and scale.

But like family resemblances, the differences are equally important. Paul Wonner's more realistic, contained line, Brown's layers of material, and Manuel Neri's sculptural depth each set them apart from the continuities seen between Park, Diebenkorn, and Bischoff.

Brown's work is illustrative of both similarities and differences. She and Neri (a sculptor and painter) were married, and the extra depth of her collages resonates with the sculptural influence he brought to his painting. Brown used collage to "paint over," where Park might have erased.

Park died of cancer in 1960. By then, "pop" was pushing figurative expressionism off stage. In the mid-1960s, with Diebenkorn's and Bischoff's return to abstraction, Joan Brown was the last link to early figurativism.

The Henry's exhibit was galvanized by a recently acquired Diebenkorn, Untitled (View of the Ocean with Palm Tree), 1958. This painting alone is reason enough to go.

A window opens onto a landscape of broad bands of color: blue sea, orange beach, and green palm tree. You can feel the warmth of the colors, rising like oil from a sunbather's back. The forms of the painting create a monumental space, as if Diebenkorn had discovered in California the lost continent of the abstract. Strangely, I remembered a seated figure in the foreground, so strongly did the painting draw me in.

California in the 1950s was a land rich enough for everyone, forever. Too rich for words, perhaps, but until October 4, you can see some of the best poems ever painted on the subject.

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