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.