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David Park: A Painter’s Life [Hardcover]

Nancy Boas

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Book Description

March 17 2012
David Park (1911–1960), transplanted Bostonian turned ground-breaking West Coast painter, led the way in creating what became known as Bay Area Figurative Art—a daring move during the post-World War II years when abstract expressionism held sway. In this beautifully illustrated biography, compiled from comprehensive and sweeping interviews, Nancy Boas traces Park’s resolute search for a new kind of figuration, one that would penetrate abstract expressionism’s thickly layered surfaces and infuse them with human presence. Boas changes our understanding of Park as a painter, highlighting his strong influence on Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and other artists at the California School of Fine Arts and the University of California, Berkeley. She plunges us into the lively 1940s and 1950s Bay Area art scene, pointing to Park’s work as a bold alternative to the abstractions of Clyfford Still. As the book deepens our admiration for Park’s figurative paintings, it affirms his stature as a major figure in American art, one who spurred the figurative impulse across the United States and abroad.

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Review

"The first full biographical portrait, not a memoir, of Park (1911-1960), the reticent founder of Bay Area Figuration, the region's only modern art movement so far to win global recognition."
(Kenneth Baker San Francisco Chronicle 2013-12-01)

“Even insiders who thought they knew this complicated artist will know him far better thanks to Boas.”
(San Francisco Chronicle 2012-05-06)

“Just as Park put the humanity back into an era of abstraction, Boas brings David Park the man into the foreground in a literary and historical sense.”
(Huffington Post 2012-02-28)

“A welcome volume.”
(Los Angeles Times 2012-03-13)

“[Boas’s] passion shows in how persuasively she argues for a wider recognition of Park’s importance.”
(Art Critical 2012-05-06)

“Shows how Park conferred a human presence on the painting of his time, influencing artists such as Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff.”
(San Jose Mercury News 2012-05-03)

“An enthralling read.”
(San Francisco Magazine 2012-02-01)

“[David Park’s] bold colors and everyday subjects helped usher in a new modernism.”
(Berkeleyside 2012-04-04)

“[A project] put together with care.”
(San Francisco Chronicle 2012-03-27)

From the Inside Flap

"At last a reliable and enlightening biography of David Park—one of America's most original artists. Boas fills in the many gaps of Park's life, all of which influenced his art."—Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

“This book makes a very important contribution to the literature on David Park and on Bay Area art from the 1930s through the 1950s more generally. Nancy Boas has done a tremendous amount of research on her subject, presenting totally new information on Park’s art and life in polished prose that will attract a wide audience within the art world. There is no question that this will become the standard biography on Park.”—Steven Nash, Executive Director, Palm Springs Art Museum

“This is a well-researched, engaging, and informative biography, detailing the life and work of one of California’s most important modern artists. Nancy Boas inspires a deep admiration for David Park’s late figurative paintings, and anyone with an interest in Park and his milieu will find this a valuable and engrossing book.”—David Cateforis, Professor of Art History, University of Kansas

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.9 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars David Park Brought to the Forefront Feb. 24 2012
By John Seed - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In the prologue of "David Park: A Painter's Life," a newly published biography of the pioneering representational painter, author Nancy Boas describes the scene at Sotheby's New York on May 15, 2007. That evening, a David Park oil, "Standing Male Nude in a Shower," brought the impressive hammer price of $1,160,000. It was the first Park painting to sell for over a million dollars. As Boas notes, the 2007 auction indicated "the rising interest in his (Park's) place among mid-twentieth century artists." Since then four other Parks have cleared the million dollar mark, including Park's broadly brushed 1959 nude in an abstract/edenic setting, "Louise," which brought a bit over $2.7 million in 2008.

In the same prologue Boas posits the notion that Park's development as an artist represented "a formal and ethical critique of Clyfford Still, who taught at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco in Park's era." Boas has more to say about this later on; the polarities and overlaps between the priestly Still and down-to-earth Park form some of the book's most original and interesting observations.

Boas' book is the end result of decades of work; she began her interviews more than 20 years ago, before so many of those who had been close to Park passed on. "David Park: A Painter's Life" is the first full biography of a postwar California artist, a long overdue counterbalance to the biographies of Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko and Arshile Gorky that have appeared since the late 1980s. Along with Phoebe Hoban's 2010 "Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty," Boas' book also seems to signal an increasing enthusiasm for American postwar representational art. It's about time.

Unlike many artist biographies, many of which seem to have author-driven agendas, this book does a wonderful job of letting the many voices of Park's friends, family and associates tell the story of his life and artistic development directly and accurately. Boas, a disciplined, straight-forward biographer, is just the right person to memorialize an artist who strove to free his work of "arbitrary mannerisms."

"A Painter's Life," offers countless fascinating insights into Park and his development, including revelations about the artists who he was exposed to and influenced by early on. Who knew, for example, that 19 year old Park had been present at a 1930 lunch given for the visiting French artist Henri Matisse? Park must have loved the loved the advice that Matisse offered to the throng of California artists: "Talk less. Work more." In the same year Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo spent over six months in Northern California, and Boas reports that Park soon after began to experiment with encaustic after seeing Rivera's encaustic paintings in the homes of friends and acquaintances.

Boas also reports on Park's rarely discussed experiments with non-objective painting. Although Park's abstractions had their admirers -- the artist Hassel Smith thought they were "great" and "handsome things" -- Park's close friend and colleague Richard Diebenkorn was more equivocal. "You didn't learn things about space or painting in his non-objective work," he commented, "you responded to the character -- to the courageous personality."

Courage -- moral and artistic -- is a theme in Park's life, and Boas gives the first thorough account of the artist's gutsy switch from abstraction back to representation. When Park showed his painting of a jazz band, titled "Rehearsal" in a group exhibition at the De Young Museum in early 1950, its approach was so contrary to the dominant abstract style on display that it was barely noticed. "I thought it was a joke," recalls artist Frank Lobdell. "The idea of somebody making such a drastic switch from one style to another just didn't occur to you."

Boas demonstrates that Park's rise as a painter was gradual and hard won. His artistic ascent was made despite decades of financial hardship and, after a terrible 1942 accident at his night job at the General Cable company, severe back pain. It was only a year or two before his death that Park told his friend Dorothy Baker that "at last he'd found how to paint." Park, who died at 49 of cancer made his best works at the end of his career.

What "David Park: A Painter's Life" accomplishes is to deepen our understanding of an artist who celebrated humanity, friendship and connection. Just as Park put the humanity back into an era of abstraction, Boas brings David Park the man into the foreground in a literary and historical sense. She has given us a detailed, truthful, credible picture of a man who tussled with the lofty claims made for abstract art. Somehow he made peace with abstraction, but he had to do it by putting human presence, in all its beautiful imperfection, into the forefront once again.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Examining the Stature of David Park Feb. 17 2012
By Grady Harp - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
David Park (March 17, 1911 - September 20, 1960) was a painter and a pioneer of the Bay Area Figurative School of painting during the 1950s, a school of artists he helped form that included Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff. His presence was keenly felt in the formation of the careers of Nathan Oliveira, Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown, and Henry Villiermme. His work was a marriage of abstract style used to create representational paintings: blocks of color became human forms without any pretense of trying to hide the direction he was taking. He loved life and painted his observation of bathers, rowers, people and children in parks and on the street, but most of these impressions he painted from memory while ensconced in his studio.

This is more than an art book, though there are ample superb reproductions of the art of David Park in this beautifully illustrated volume, but instead this is a definitive biography, compiled from comprehensive and sweeping interviews by author Nancy Boas who explores then manner in which Park searched for and discovered a new kind of figuration, one that would penetrate abstract expressionism's thickly layered surfaces and infuse them with human presence. His influence on the other, perhaps more famous Bay Area Artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and others was immense. Boas places David Park in the historical perspective better than any other writer to this point. This is a smoothly readable, intensely intelligent book about a fascinating artist. Grady Harp, February 11
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A painter's life in his artistic context. Feb. 11 2012
By Old Master - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Too bad David Park couldn't have lived to read this marvelous biography. He would have been pleased at the gratitude of his students, the accomplishments of the artists he taught and influenced, and at this review of his life and career.
Following a chronological path, this meticulously researched and documented account intertwines his life experiences, artistic development, and friendships over his lifetime, illuminating his paintings and artistic contributions to the art of others in the context of the art world of his time.
The illustrations could constitute a tabletop art reference work on their own. The text is a cultural history of his time, altogether interesting and satisfying for readers who have never heard of David Park, and fascinating to those who appreciate his paintings.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best biographies I've read in ages Feb. 1 2014
By Kevin Killian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A biographer myself, I haven’t been so taken by a biography in a long time, and my hat is off to Nancy Boas and her incredible life of the Boston Born, Bay Area-based painter David Park, who died in 1960.

First off, this author has done her research. I couldn’t believe I was reading the life of a man born in 1911, and she had interviewed many of his contemporaries—people who would be over 100 today! She even interviewed David Park’s *aunt*, an artist herself who perhaps inspired her young nephew with the love of art and more, a vision of how to create it oneself. Nancy Boas has been working on this book for so long that many of her witnesses have themselves passed on, but her ability to quote them so freshly keeps them alive and kicking, speaking frankly as though to a trusted friend. She is really good at a difficult art, isolating quotations in a way that characterizes the speaker too, so David Park A Painter’s Life reads like a novel with a bevy of interesting characters for good and bad.

Park hailed from a comfortable and socially well-connected clerical family and his father, a noted minister, never thought that his son would become a painter. Early on Park fled the East and his family to go to California, as far as he possibly could from the lot of them, though we see him warming up to his brothers little by little, particularly after one of them was stricken by polio in the air force and suffered physical reverses.

What impresses most about Park is how much he himself suffered in order to find time to paint, and the interesting part of the story is how long he waited to find success. He was 44 before he had a real job, hired as professor at UC Berkeley, and it was about that time that everything started happening for him: selling his work, finding a supportive dealer, vindication after many years of struggle.

And then, before you know it, bang, a diagnosis of lung and hip cancer that killed him before his 50th birthday. In the meantime, an epochal battle with abstract expressionist Clyfford Still, Park’s nemesis at CSFA, as they called the San Francisco Art Institute in the exciting postwar years when visionary curator Douglas MacAgy ran the place. Boas finds ways to show us the odious egotism of Still, but we also see through her narrative powers that Still came from a place of pure poverty in Canada, and that where he came from, you either lay down in the snow and died, or you stood up and lived, so that survival was a class thing for him and if it meant browbeating the mild-mannered middleclass figurative guys like Park, then so be it. Still does come close to stealing every scene he’s in. “Imperious and defiant,” writes Boas on page 108, “he was prone to self-dramatizing statements like the description of his career as ‘one of the great stories of all time, far more meaningful and infinitely more intense than the wars of the bullring and the battlefield.” You got to love someone who can speak with such Ted Baxter vanity!

Boas delicately narrates the marriage of David Park to the beautiful, energetic, and yet strangely depressed and dissatisfied Lydia, whom he called “Deedee” or “Deed.” I don’t know, I felt that she was watching her step when it came to Park’s domestic life, pulling her punches a bit, and maybe if the daughters of David and Lydia who are still alive, weren’t, she might be more forthcoming. There are certainly hints that Lydia was rarely home because she was spending many boozy afternoons with the neighbor couple, and basically that Mr. Neighbor and she had some sort of romantic attachment to each other? Did David mind being a cuckold, if that’s what he was? We never see him involved with other women. His penchant for painting nudes gave him access to many gorgeous women—and men, but Boas is not interested in “queering” Park the way another biographer might be tempted to. When she notes the “explicit frontal nudity” of Park’s paintings she sees it in terms of tone and scale, nothing more.

The exceptional brilliance of Park’s many friends (mostly heterosexual couples, though jess and Duncan, and Brown and Winner make appearance) leaves the reader envious for a time when people had party after party, drank and smoked like crazy, all the while participating in a postwar Beat era avant-garde that was not quite Beat, but fellow travelers you might say. Rents were cheap—they had to be, since the hardscrabble jobs David and Lydia worked at paid so little. For years they lived in an old house high on a Berkeley hill that eventually collapsed all around them while they ran out with the kids under their arms. We also get to hear quite a lot about Howard and Dorothy Baker, who were sort of the Paul and Jane Bowles of the West Coast. Nancy Boas also shows considerable erudition and knows how to write briefly about every one of Park’s hundreds of finished and unfinished works in order to illuminate just what about him was so special, and what made him better than his confreres Bischoff and Diebenkorn. Imogen Cunningham’s photo of Park on the cover gives him the charisma of a rock star or of an old West lawman—did any succeeding generation know how to rock a T-shirt like the painters of Park’s cohort? I don’t think so! All in all a book of enduring value, a masterpiece of hunting and gathering information and a fascinating portrait of a good man and an intriguing artist.
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent March 11 2014
By Karla - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This well-researched biography is important for the obvious reason that David Park was a wonderful and too little known painter. Yet even more significant is that modern painting that is uniquely California in origin and style has been little examined and undervalued. Boas had clearly been working on this book for for a decade or two since she interviewed many players in David Park's life who have been deceased for a long time. This is an essential resource for anyone who is interested in the cultural history of northern California.
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