Contemporary Art

Richard Diebenkorn and David Park

By Sotheby's
Richard Diebenkorn, Ingleside II, 1963

E ncapsulating the essence of their Californian environs through sumptuous gestural figuration, Surf Bathers and Ingleside II typify David Park and Richard Diebenkorn’s respective radical reinvigoration of figurative painting that unequivocally renewed the relevance of this genre within American art. In their dramatic rupture from the reigning artistic mode of Abstract Expressionism, David Park and Richard Diebenkorn emerged as the pre-eminent members of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Galvanized by its faculty members, which included Park and Diebenkorn alongside contemporaries like Elmer Bischoff, this pioneering style emerged from the atmosphere of mutual support and creative exchange found at the California School of Fine Art in San Francisco in the late 1940s and early 50s. While keen observers of the experimental painterly techniques and palpable zeal of Abstract Expressionism, they opposed the East Coast movement’s emphasis on the subconscious and the imprint of personality as a source of imagery in favor of direct observations of the inner and outer world. As aptly described by art historian Caroline Jones, "[the] hard-worn hegemony of Abstract Expressionism as the first national style rendered any deviation from it doubly suspect...The individuals who conducted the Bay Area 'defection' perceived it quite differently. Like others in New York and abroad, they viewed the dominance of Abstract Expressionism as a form of stultification. Figuration seemed to be a way of saving that which was still vital and dynamic in the Abstract Expressionist style, a way of moving forward, of encouraging a more generous personal vision" (Caroline A. Jones, in: Exh. Cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bay Area Figurative Art, 1950-1965, 1989, p. 11). Teeming with gestural impastos of saturated color, Surf Bathers and Ingleside II harness the energy of Abstract Expression to examine the representational essence of quotidian subjects.

David Park teaching at the California School of Fine Arts, ca. 1949. Photo: San Francisco Art Institute Archives / William Heick
Edward Hopper, High Road, 1931. Image © Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource, NY. Art © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/ Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Surf Bathers and Ingleside II manifest Park and Diebenkorn’s distinct aesthetic languages perfected from placing European Modernists and American Realists in conversation with the virtuosic painterly immediacy of Abstract Expressionism. Diebenkorn drew inspiration from the iconic American landscapes of Edward Hopper, manifested in Ingleside II and throughout his oeuvre in the atmospheric use of color to convey a distinct personal immediacy. The geometrically articulated landscape is immediately evocative of Paul Cézanne, with whom Diebenkorn became enamored while in the United States Marine Corps. As a student at Stanford University, Diebenkorn came to know Matisse through the collection of Sarah Stein, the sister of Modernist collector Gertrude Stein, after which he stated the work “has just stuck with me all the way” (The artist quoted in: Timothy Anglin Burgard, “The Nature of Abstraction,” Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years 1953-1966, New Haven 2013, p. 14). In Diebenkorn’s present landscape, Matisse’s influence is readily apparent in the planar use of vibrantly atmospheric color. Park’s Surf Bathers equally displays the influence of the eminent French artist, whom Park heard speak at a luncheon in 1930, through its compression of a recessive ocean into a flat pane of expressively articulated paint. Through their geometric construction, Park’s nude bathers are suggestive of Cézanne’s preoccupation with the same subject matter.

LEFT: David Park, Surf Bathers, 1953
RIGHT: Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1900-1906. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Park and Diebenkorn remain superlative among Bay Area Figurative artists for their masterful wielding of the light and color distinctive to their Californian environs in order to capture the spirited essence of the American West. Replete with lush earthen tones, the palette of David Park’s oeuvre bespeaks the chromatic intensity inherent to the Western American landscape. In Surf Bathers, this manifests in the currents of deep jade, ultramarine, and maroon that predominate the canvas to evoke a meditative serenity. Among the artist’s outdoor scenes, the present work stands as one of the most striking articulations of the distinctive California light. Emanating from behind the bathers, this sunlight delineates the bathers’ forms from their surroundings. As highlighted sea foam haloes their heads, flecks of yellow and bands of pure white illuminate the light reflected by the water below their feet. Surf Bathers’ melding of rich, churning color with potent light is a superlative exemplar of Park’s capacity to perfectly distill the raw dynamism of Northern California.

David Park in his studio, 1956. Photo: Imogen Cunningham Trust. Art © 2022 Estate of David Park

Diebenkorn’s practice was defined by his capturing of California’s vibrancy with a heightened and joyful intensity. Consequently, as critic Robert Hughes explains, his works are synonymous with the West Coast in the art historical canon: “Some landscapes were invented by painters and carry their names. The stone farmhouse on a lavender Provençal hill proclaims Cézanne; the shuttered hotel room with a blue glimpse of sea beyond a curlicued balcony announces Matisse […] It happens in California too, through the work of Richard Diebenkorn” (Robert Hughes, “California in Eupeptic Color,” Time Magazine, June 1977, p. 58). Painted during the brief period when Diebenkorn enacted a sudden shift from abstraction to a purely representational mode, Ingleside II flawlessly elicits the visual impression of the colors and spirit that infused his childhood suburban environs. Confident brushstrokes construct a geometry of lawns, asphalt roads, and stucco homes in powerfully exuberant hues only possible with the illumination of the California sun, lending the painting a luminous presence that extends well beyond the edges of the canvas. A panoramic celebration of lushness and warmth, Ingleside II perfectly exudes the essence of a place that holds deep personal significance for Diebenkorn.

Richard Diebenkorn in his studio, 1956. Photo by Rose Mandel / Rose Mandel Archive, Oakland, California. Art © 2022 Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

As sumptuous mediations on figuration and abstraction, Surf Bathers and Ingleside II illustrate Park and Diebenkorn’s skillful sensitivity to both human awareness and their Californian environs. Illustrating both the intimate and sublime, these masterworks cement these artists’ status as titans of not only the Bay Area Figurative Movement, but also the whole of Post-War American painting.

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