Arts & Culture

The Modern’s latest exhibit features the pioneer of the Bay Area Figurative Movement

The Modern’s new exhibit captures the journey of an American painter whose life was cut tragically short in his prime.

On view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth from June 2 through September 22, David Park: A Retrospective is the artist’s first major museum exhibition in more than 30 years with 150 works from several museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian, and the Whitney.

The exhibit chronicles Park’s work from the 1930s up until his last days in 1960. Originally from Boston, he moved to San Francisco and became a pioneer of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, and figurative art in general.

The first gallery is devoted to Park’s early watercolor works on paper and drawings in the 1930s. An art school dropout, he was essentially self-taught. Park was the son of a minister, but he was not religious.

However, many of his early works show a fascination with the drama of biblical stories from The Book of Genesis. Other early works are clearly inspired by modern artists like Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee. Park was searching for his own voice, but already revealing his natural ability to convey expressions and gestures.

In the 1940s, Park experimented with abstract expressionism. During this period, he sometimes even abandoned his fascination with the human figure for works comparable to Clyfford Still. He did, however, produce his only self-portrait in 1946. To provide insight into Park’s creative process, sketches of abstract works and highly stylized profiles are presented here for the first time.

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A companion exhibition devoted to drawings by David Park and his friends and colleagues, titled The Bay Area Figurative Drawing Sessions, accompanies this retrospective. Works from meditative drawing sessions experimenting with different poses and props capture Park as a brotherly figure.

By 1949 or 1950, Park decided to wipe the slate clean and start over by literally throwing most of his paintings in the trash. Drawn to replicating reality, he returned to figurative art and his work dramatically changed, as evidenced by several mid-1950s portraits with unusual color schemes, perhaps influenced by his experiments with abstract expressionism, from Park as an artist for hire.

In 1956, he briefly experimented again and painted his only still life of an art studio sink and a hammer and pliers. Another still life of a Russian comb that belonged to a friend is in an unusual gold frame selected by the artist himself.

But by the late 1950s, Park was reaching his expressive peak by merging abstract expressionism with the figurative work at his core. With rough brushstrokes, unnatural color schemes, simplified shapes, abstract backgrounds and gestural marks, these large paintings of street scenes, interiors, jazz bands and nude figures resemble German expressionism.

Some of the most shocking images from this period include a towering man with lobster-red skin (Standing Male Nude in Shower) and the sullen faces of Man in a T-Shirt and Canoe, which have been reduced to a few crude brushstrokes.

Many of Park’s best paintings are gloomy with sunny highlights. Park was still painting people, but these figures have bizarre poses and seem to come from his mind instead of his immediate surroundings.

By 1959, Park was a rising artist with a solo show in a New York gallery and paintings in museum collections. But it was also the same year that he completed his last painting The Cellist, with the image of an androgynous pale figure. After being diagnosed with cancer, Park was in extreme pain and his health rapidly declined until he was no longer able to stand in front of a canvas.

But after two surgeries, Park was still wildly prolific in the last months of his life. The final gallery features several works on paper from an artist confined to a hospital bed at home, reflecting on his life. Painted with that same remarkable economy of brushstrokes, these small figurative works have an astonishing purity of color.

With his mind and body fading, Park continued painting right up until his death in 1960 at the age of 49. Using scenes from memories of daily life, he even created a thirty-foot scroll with a roll of kitchen shelf paper and felt-tip markers, presented here as a digital reproduction.

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm