Art World

David Park retrospective at the newly reopened SFMOMA

Dump of Abstract Expressionist work leads to Bay Area Figurative Art Movement
Left to right: David Park Figure in Chair, ca. 1958. © Estate of David Park; courtesy Natalie Park Schutz, Helen Park Bigelow, and Hackett Mill, San Francisco; photo: Don Ross; David Park, Rehearsal, ca. 1949–50. © Estate of David Park; courtesy Natalie Park Schutz, Helen Park Bigelow, and Hackett Mill, San Francisco

In the 1940s, Abstract Expressionism was an American painting movement that grew to have a global influence on the visual arts. During that same period, David Park filled his Ford with his own Abstract Expressionist canvases and abandoned them at a city dump. Making a clean break from his past, Park went on to reintroduce the figure into his paintings, which he called “pictures.” In the process he spearheaded the Bay Area Figurative Art Movement. Through January 2021, a retrospective at SFMOMA will be Park’s first in three decades, and the first to focus on his entire career.


Essentially self-taught, with minimal art training but a natural ability for drawing, Park relocated from Boston to California when he was just 17. He lived most of his life in the Bay Area, where he became an influential teacher at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) as well as the University of California, Berkeley. He was at the center of a vibrant Bay Area artist community, which included Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Paul Wonner, and others.

Commenting on Parks, curator Janet Bishop said, “He was a profoundly gifted artist who had two great loves: paint and people. Toward the end of his life, his fascination with the potential of his medium coupled with his appreciation for the human figure led to a group of canvases in which the universal humanity of his subjects comes pulsing through in the most powerful way.”

Park used the figure as a means of communicating the universal simply by painting the everyday experiences of humanity. “Quite often even the very fine non-objective canvases seem to me to be so visually beautiful that I find them insufficiently troublesome, not personal enough,” Park said. Drawing from his own experiences, he painted scenes from his life in works like Rehearsal (c. 1949–50), which pictures the jazz band for which he served as a pianist. Depicted from his vantage point behind the piano, torsos of players tightly pack the visual field painted in deep earth tones. Park’s experience with abstraction still informs his style; however, on the backs of the players the style is simplified into bright color blocks, and through the floors and walls flattened into solid color. In Boston Street Scene (1954), the artist returns to a view of the neighborhood where he grew up, and in Interior (1957) his wife and fellow painter Elmer Bischoff posed as subjects.


Two Bathers (1958), The Cellist (1959), and other works from this era became expressive high water marks in Park’s figurative art distinguished by looser brushstrokes and more colorful, vibrant palettes. Psychologically charged with a new intensity, this departure into a new style was sadly cut short by illness in 1960. Unable to work on canvas, he began exploring other media. While bedridden during his last months, Park produced a 30-foot-long felt-tip pen scroll (on view exclusively at SFMOMA) and a vivid gouache series depicting the human figure, alone and in groups, mothers and children, domestic activities, and other everyday scenes. 

Park continued to paint work at UC Berkeley as an associate professor until his early death from cancer at 49. 


Concurrently on view, David Park and His Circle: The Drawing Sessions gives the public a peek into David Park’s weekly figure drawing sessions with fellow artists Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn in 1953. Repeatedly drawing models in varying poses and experimenting with traditional and unconventional materials, these artists gatherings grew over the years to include other friends and colleagues and were held in each other’s Bay Area studios. The gestures and attitudes of the models seem to trigger the imagination, and it’s hard not to wonder about the conversations that took place in these spaces and in between these posturings. The show features 33 drawings and two sketchbooks are the remaining documents of these collaborative meetings.

David Parks: A Retrospective: Monday 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Thursday 1–8 p.m., Friday–Sunday 10 a.m.–5 p.m. through Jan. 18, 2021, $25 timed ticketing only, 151 Third Street, 415-357-4000,

Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at

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