Boston and Bay Area figurative expressionism

The death of the great San Francisco painter Nathan Oliveira (1928-2010) on Saturday, a central player in the Bay Area Figurative group of the 1950s and ‘60s, gets us thinking again about the unexplored connections—or at least coincidences—between Boston and San Francisco and other regional art metropolises outside New York at midcentury. The places where abstraction didn’t take over, the places where eccentric, often grotesque realism persisted, the places that are still often overlooked in surveys of the 20th century art—including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas wing. (Pictured above: Oliveira’s 1961 painting “Nineteen Twenty-Nine.”)

Boston College teacher Judith Bookbinder’s 2005 book “Boston Modern,” the definitive account of Boston Expressionism, quotes Oliveira talking about how he was influenced by exhibitions of Kokoschka, Munch, Beckmann and Boston painter Hyman Bloom (pictured at left: Bloom’s 1939 painting “Christmas Tree,” which is in the MFA collection but not on view) that were put together in Boston and traveled to San Francisco’s de Young Museum in the early 1950s. “They all connected for me. I found a credibility there,” Oliveira told Bookbinder in 1996.

And I can’t help wondering about David Park (1911-1960), the hub figure in the Bay Area Figurative Group. He grew up in Boston’s Back Bay, moved to Los Angeles in 1928 to study art, then the San Francisco Bay Area. He returned to Massachusetts, living in Brookline and then Cambridge while teaching in Brookline from 1936 to ’41. Then he returned to the Bay Area.

In Boston during those years, Jack Levine painted acid portraits of the city, like his 1937 canvas “Feast of Pure Reason” (pictured above), which was acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Hyman Bloom was painting his 1939 canvas “Christmas Tree” (pictured above above), which straddled the divide between realism and abstraction and some see as a forerunner of New York Action Painting of the late ‘40s. The two Bostonians were getting national attention. Levine exhibited at MoMA in 1936 and ’39, and in the Whitney Museum’s Annual Exhibitions of ’37, ’38, ’40, ’41 and so on. Bloom showed at MoMA in 1942.

In Boston, Park moved away from the allegorical and Social Realist works he’d been painting, and took on a cubist style. He exhibited his representational paintings at Delphic Studios in New York in 1936, and then his more abstract work at Boston’s New Gallery in 1939 and at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1930 and ’40. When he moved back to San Francisco the following year, he tried out an Abstract Expressionist style before he adopted around 1949 and 1950 the simplified, figurative style, with its Action Painting brushwork, that he’s remembered for. (Pictured above: Park, “Boston Street Scene,” 1954; pictured below: Park, “Rowboat,” 1954, which is in the MFA collection but not on view.)

While here in Boston, while visiting New York, did Park know what his fellow Boston artists were up to?

Judith Bookbinder writes in to say:

“As you point out and as I argue in my book, Boston and Bay Area figurative expressionist artists took the physicality of paint, which abstract expressionists also explored in the 1940s and ’50s, and applied it to human experience. They remain focused on the visible world because, for them, that’s where the action, the pathos, is located. Nathan Oliveira, David Park, Hyman Bloom,and Jack Levine shared a profound sense of spirituality embedded in human experience in the material world combined with the richness and possibilities of painterly expression.”

And Danforth Museum Director Katherine French, who has organized a number of recent exhibitions of Boston Expressionism, writes:

“There absolutely was a connection between Boston and Bay area figurative expressionism, probably most strongly through Jim Weeks. Weeks taught in Boston University’s graduate painting program alongside Philip Guston, bringing in a more French understanding of color and light set against dark, somewhat Germanic quality found in work by many Boston Expressionist artists. I could also point you in the direction of the sculptor Manuel Neri, whom I hosted as a visiting artist in BU’s Master Class program in the 1980′s. Also BU hosted Wayne Thibaud as a visiting speaker, and Jim Weeks and others often used slides of work by David Park to illustrate painting lectures.”

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