Bay Area Figurative 1950s and 1960s
Abstract Expressionism to the Figure and California Landscape
April 29 - June 18, 2006
Curated by Barbara Janeff
Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown William, Theophilus Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, Bruce McGaw, Manuel Neri, Nathan Oliveira, David Park, Walter Snelgrove, Henry Villierme, Paul Wonner, Ira Yeager and James Weeks
In the 1950s… some qualities of Abstract Expressionism were incorporated into the new figurative style: the bold, gestural brush strokes; the thick layering of paint; the vibrant and unusual colors; the commitment to painting for its own sake (process); the use of non-perspectival space; and the importance of the entire painted surface. Left behind were doctrinaire, highly intellectual aesthetics and the rigid cult of the nonobjective.
In the Bay Area a coherent movement developed through a group of artists that are now considered some of the legends of California art. This art represents a pivotal time of redefining what art can be. Barbara Janoff has brought together works by members of this renown group.
The way light falls over our beautiful Bay Area, how our seeing distorts scale and perspective, and the way the human body carries emotions were painted with the dynamic techniques of abstraction. These bold methods, when applied to natural forms, reinvigorated painting which became wonderfully accessible. The work has a sense of place (landscape and studio) and is highly evocative of Northern California light and color.
Just after World War II the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) was a center of Abstract Expressionism. Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko reigned. David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn were there and very much a part of the ‘action’ of abstract painting. However, in 1949 David Park carted his abstract paintings to the Berkeley dump. Why? In his words: “I saw that if I would accept subjects, I could paint with more absorption, with a certain enthusiasm for the subject which would allow some of the aesthetic qualities such as color and composition to evolve more naturally. With subjects, the difference is that I feel a natural development of the painting rather than a formal, self-conscious one. As a person, I have nothing in common with someone like Mondrian–he was an inventor, I am not; I love things, and my forms come more easily out of a less deliberate kind of invention.”
In 1950 Park painted his first (post abstract) figurative work. Bischoff and Diebenkorn followed in the early fifties. Some qualities of Abstract Expressionism were incorporated into the new figurative style: the bold, gestural brush strokes; the thick layering of paint; the vibrant and unusual colors; the commitment to painting for its own sake (process); the use of
non-perspectival space; and the importance of the entire painted surface. Left behind were doctrinaire, highly intellectual aesthetics and the rigid cult of the non-objective. Diebenkorn and others didn’t like ‘the tag’ of being identified with a movement. But after half a century we can appreciate a bright and humane time when the artists’ love of their surroundings and of the act of painting and its materials coalesced into what we now celebrate as Bay Area Figurative.
Just as the beginnings of Bay Area Figurative art came out of Abstract Expressionism, one could say that it’s endings evolved into the Pop Art of Wayne Thiebaud, the photo realism of Robert Bechtle and Richard McLean, the hushed realism of that great ‘minor master’ Gordon Cook and even the revival in the 70’s of plein-air landscape painting by Lundy Siegriest and Terry St. John. But that’s another show.