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.
David Park A Painter’s Life
Painting has been my chief interest since childhood.
David Park was born on March 17, 1911, at his family's house at 347 Marlborough Street, in Boston's Back Bay. Marlborough Street in the early decades of the twentieth century was a cohesive ensemble of tall, narrow, redbrick single-family houses. Low wrought-iron fences enclosed neat patches of green lawn. Redbrick sidewalks were lined with trees and gaslights (see fig. 1).
David's father, Charles Edwards Park, had been born in India, the son of the Congregational missionaries Charles Ware Park and Anna Ballantine Park. Among Charles Edwards's most vivid childhood memories was seeing a tiger watching from the forest during the family's summer trek to a cooler hill town. The family returned to Massachusetts after a dozen years of missionary service because of Charles Ware Park's ill health. He accepted a Unitarian pulpit in 1895 but died shortly afterward of consumption at the age of fifty, leaving his wife, son, five daughters, and considerable debts. Charles Edwards Park dropped out of his senior year at Yale to assume family responsibilities but completed his studies by correspondence and graduated with his class. Some of his Yale friends had expected the outgoing athlete and sailor to choose a career in business; however, on the advice of his mentor, the Unitarian theologian William Wallace Fenn, he decided to become a minister.
Mary Elliot Turner, David's mother, like his father came from a family that had settled in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. Her parents had moved to Illinois, and Mary, a popular, outgoing young woman, met Charles Edwards Park when he was assigned to preach at the Unitarian church in Geneva, Illinois (see fig. 2). They became engaged in 1900 but did not marry until three years later, after he had paid his family's debts. At first they lived in Hingham, Massachusetts, where he was the minister of two churches. They then moved to Boston in 1906, where Charles Edwards Park was appointed minister of the famous First Church in Boston, the city's oldest church and one of the most prestigious Unitarian pulpits in the country. A Boston Sunday Post article described Park as a "boyish looking athlete" and expressed skepticism about the choice of such a "liberal, young" minister "to be the spiritual guide of a congregation representative of the old Puritan element in Boston." But Park's considerable preaching skills and attractive personality soon made him enormously popular with his congregation and one of the most admired ministers in Boston. Forty years later, when he retired from active ministry, Time reported: "Humble Parson Park proved to be exactly the 'right man' for his church. Today he is recognized as the Grand Old Man of U.S. liberal pulpits."
Soon after the Parks moved to Boston, their first child, a son named Charles Ware Park after his grandfather, died at eighteen months. Ten months later, in July 1907, a daughter, Marion, was born. The next child, Dick, was born in 1909, followed by David, and then Edwards, called Ted, in 1917 (see fig. 3). Blond and blue-eyed, "David was very contemplative and sensitive," Marion recalled. "And he was probably all too aware of how different he was from the rest of us."
Mary Park was closely involved in her children's day-to-day activities. She had studied the Montessori teaching method and kept an assortment of arts and crafts materials on hand for the children to cut, paste, sew, and make puppets with. When the weather was bad and they couldn't go outside, they would sit around a table in the nursery with watercolors and crayons. David's ability to concentrate on painting and drawing was noticed by the time he was three or four. Dick Park recalled, "With Marion and me, this was a temporary activity which we put away and forgot. With David it was something he turned to without the excuse of bad weather."
Ted Park recalled that, although his mother definitely ran the house, "we were all dominated by Dad because he was really quite famous in his way in Boston.... We were a bit overwhelmed by him." Dr. Park had a deadline every week to prepare his Sunday sermon, and Saturdays were sacrosanct. "He had a set schedule," Marion said. "Every sermon was written from scratch beginning about Thursday, and Saturdays were completely silent days. We never had children to play on Saturdays. We were just kept quiet."
When David was four years old, his parents bought a farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a pristine village about a hundred miles north of Boston. The First Church in Boston suspended services in the summer, and Dr. Park, released from his pastoral responsibilities, changed into country clothes and became a farmer-carpenter. "Instead of the distant, austere figure of my early recollections, dressed always in black tie, stiff collar, and black suit, he became easy-going and available," Dick wrote.
The Peterborough property was a self-contained world of adventure and the children's "truest home." The young Parks played in open fields, picked blackberries, and explored the cool pine forest. One of the first things David and Dick did when they arrived in Peterborough each year was to walk barefoot down to the brook behind the house, "a required ritual to be performed at once in spite of thorns, thistle, twigs, or rocks," according to Dick. Although Dick and Marion excelled at most sports, four-year-old David loved the water and was the first child to learn to swim.
Eventually Ted and David became companions. Ted recalled how aware David was of the beauty around them. When Ted was about seven, David dragged him down to a little glade in the woods where there was a ledge of rock covered with caribou moss. David pointed out "the gray-silver look with the green around it, and the dark green spruces around and sun over his head-it was gorgeous."
Meals in the Park household were accompanied by banter and repartee. Conversations brimmed with songs, poems, and quotations. Both in Boston and in Peterborough, the bookcase was only a few steps from the dining table. The Park children were raised on stories by Kipling and O. Henry, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Wonderbook and Tanglewood Tales, The Three Musketeers, tales of King Arthur and his knights, and Gayley's Classical Myths. Their father read aloud all the Thornton Burgess books and Alice in Wonderland with the Tenniel drawings from 1911.
The children were unusually familiar with the lessons of the Old and New Testaments. Dr. Park was a peerless storyteller, and his sermons were deceptively simple, commonsense reflections on life. "He would never really tell you what was the best option but would just make it obvious," Ted said. "And then he would say, 'If you think about it, that is the way Jesus would have done it.'" David's imagination was ignited by Bible tales that his father made vivid and relevant, and by Greek gods and heroes, whose dilemmas resembled those facing his friends and family. He attended his father's afternoon Sunday school classes, where magic lantern slides projected on a screen depicted the Bible stories. David often ran the slide projector. To make the glass slides, Dr. Park photographed images from illustrated Bibles and antique books, along with more commonplace pictures bought from suppliers of religious materials. In the darkened classroom, the images, narratives, and values imprinted themselves on his son's memory.
Already in his childhood, painting was David's chief interest, as he later wrote and his siblings confirmed. No one could have doubted, Dick said, the "seriousness of David's determination to spend his life painting. It began to be evident when he was about ten and it became increasingly and convincingly more so. Some of the family disagreed with his choice, but no one thought he was anything other than completely serious."
Marion and Dick were excellent students, outgoing, and athletic. They exuded insouciant self-confidence. Ted, the lively and amusing youngest child, was doted on. David was the odd man out. He described himself later as "the black sheep" of the family. Marion suspected that his feelings of alienation began about the time he started wearing glasses. In September 1917, at the age of six and a half, David had joined Marion and Dick at Miss Lee's School, which was a few blocks from their house on Marlborough Street. Miss Frances Lee, a Radcliffe-educated artist friend of the Park family, ran the school. The teachers there thought David was not seeing properly and should have his eyes examined. "The oculist said he was missing five-sevenths of his eyesight, so he was put into glasses in the spring of his first-grade year," Marion said. "I think the doctor just made a mistake, because at about age fifteen David discarded his glasses and got along perfectly well without them for the rest of his life." While Dick was usually the team captain of ball games at school, David's glasses kept him from the rough-and-tumble sports of childhood.
David's Aunt Edith, an artist who became his childhood mentor, called him "the off-chicken." His parents did not get to know him until years later, she said. Edith, a small woman with bright blue eyes; a halo of light-colored, curly hair; and a distinctive, piping voice, was the youngest of David's father's five sisters. Born in 1888 in Connecticut, she had studied on a scholarship at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 1906 to 1912. She was trained to draw and paint meticulously from life, and her earliest mature work was a refined somber realism. She discovered modern art when the Armory Show came to the Museum of Fine Arts in 1914. Henri Matisse's drawings "created quite a stir," she said. "We were shocked. We had been taught that anatomical man was what we were after-literally. And Matisse was not that at all." Nevertheless, Edith's work for the next decade followed that of her teachers-Philip Leslie Hale, Edmund Tarbell, Frank Benson, and William Paxton. She painted in a conservative impressionistic style characterized by pale hues and broken brushwork. In later years she arrived at a signature style of strongly colored reductive shapes, craggy masses and flat, abstracted forms applied to figures and landscapes.
Edith, who earned her living as an art teacher, provided an acceptable model for the family, but even so, David's determination to be an artist was at odds with his father's expectations. The boy's difficulties in school exacerbated things. David later ascribed his troubles learning to read and spell to being switched from writing left-handed to writing right-handed in elementary school. He also thought something like dyslexia probably affected his school performance. On David's earliest drawings his signature is written in script in mirror image and sometimes backward. Such reversals are among the most common and least serious developmental lags and are usually outgrown. Throughout his life he read slowly, but he thoroughly remembered what he read.
The earliest surviving drawing by David shows a five- or six-year-old boy in short pants sitting on a stool, chin resting on hand, looking downcast. The bent figure-a duncelike image-fills the space. This tiny pencil drawing shows a precocious ability to convey feeling. The handmade paper frame suggests that David or his parents valued it.
In 1919, when David reached the fourth grade, he began attending Miss Park's School in suburban Brookline, which became the Park School the following year. Dick and David made the trip to school together each day by streetcar. In a gesture of freedom, as soon as they got out of sight of their house they would remove the elastic bands from the braces on their teeth and reinsert them on the trip home. The boys' aunt Julia Park, their father's oldest sister, was the accomplished and revered head and proprietor of the school, and three of their other aunts served on the faculty. Edith Park taught art and drama; Alice Park taught music and acted as school secretary; and Edith Turner, Mary Park's sister, taught primary classes. David was close to all three. Alice gave him piano lessons and took him on visits to the Museum of Fine Arts, and Edith Turner, who never married, was devoted to her sister's children.
The school offered a child-centered curriculum based on Julia Park's clear vision of freedom within discipline. Academic subjects were taught in the morning. The afternoon session consisted of supervised sports and activities such as carpentry, sewing, cooking, drama, music, and art. Edith Park, who had joined the school in 1918, created and directed this part of the curriculum. David sometimes spent weekends with her. They would discuss his future-should he be a painter or a pianist? Edith said he most often decided in favor of painting, but she encouraged him to move freely among the arts and taught him that thinking in another art language, such as music, could help him see clearly. She believed in the interconnection of various creative pursuits. David's conversations with Edith were interrupted in the spring of 1922, when she married JohnF. Truesdell, a lawyer for the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, and moved west.
David made a conscious decision to become an artist during the summer of his twelfth year. He spent six weeks in July and August in a big log cabin at Canandaigua Lake in New York's Finger Lake district, visiting Frances and Alice Lee, both close friends of his aunts. Louisa Alger, a young mathematics teacher at the Winsor School, a private institution for girls in Brookline, was also a houseguest. Another teacher at the Winsor School, Mary Gay, a painter, had a cabin farther down the lake. Frances Lee, Mary Gay, and David spent much time painting together. He received his first commission when a neighbor at the lake paid him five dollars to paint a group of flowers in her garden. Louisa Alger was struck by David's social ease among the older women and by his interesting mind. She noted, "During that summer I don't remember him reading at all, but he looked much. He was exceedingly observant ... very perceptive about people and very perceptive about the way things looked. He knew where things were in the world. If something were moved ever so slightly, he would know it." She also remarked upon his unusual moral perceptiveness. "David was a person of great integrity. He did not look at life the way other people did."
Park created his juvenile work in a variety of media: poster paint, oil, watercolor, graphite, and ink. He painted all the time, though only a small number of the early works survive. Among them are scenes of New Hampshire (Mount Monadnock, woodland landscapes, orchards, church steeples) and the Boston area (bridges and boats on the Charles River, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, the Cambridge skyline).
The influence of Edith Park's short strokes of high-keyed color in shallow or indeterminate space is evident in David's juvenile landscapes in oil and paintings of girls in woodland settings. A surprisingly accomplished painting of a small girl standing in the forest from around 1923 presages his work in the 1950s. His love of thick pigment is already evident in the bold daubs of oil paint. Greens, blues, lavenders, and yellows, close in value, create an overall surface pattern. The buildup of form through color is an important ingredient of his compositions even at an early age. He painted indoors and out, summer and winter. A photograph of Park painting in the snow (fig. 4) shows his intense focus and willingness to work alone from childhood.
After David finished the eighth grade, in 1924, he enrolled in the Loomis Institute, a college preparatory boarding school in Windsor, Connecticut. The headmaster was Nathaniel Horton Batchelder, an acquaintance of Dr. Park's who held progressive views about educating boys. Batchelder was a charismatic figure, but the most important influence on David Park at Loomis was Batchelder's wife, Evelyn Beatrice Longman. She was a sculptor who had married Batchelder when she was forty-six, at the height of her professional career. Evelyn Longman was an attractive and commanding woman, best known for her monumental sculptures for several world's fairs and the gilded figure atop the Western Union Telegraph Building in lower Manhattan. When she married, she moved her sculpture studio from New York to spacious quarters on the Loomis campus. She championed the less conventional students, artistic and creative souls who might have had difficulty finding a cordial reception in a typical New England boarding school. Her husband was a sports enthusiast. He coached the football team, and she sculpted him holding a football.
"David was the kind of person who was made for Batch," said Elting Morison, a friend of David and his brother Dick. "He was one of a group that comprised a kind of 'rive gauche' at the school. Some didn't fit in at all socially, some didn't fit in emotionally, some didn't fit in intellectually. But almost all of them had talent and something distinctive about them.... The school was practically unrelieved Connecticut suburbia, or Rye, or the Oranges, which is what prep schools were. Batch planted this group of very unusual people in the midst of these perfectly nice, decent, frightfully conventional middle-class Americans and gave them support. And Mrs. Batchelder gave them support." Uninterested in most of the required schoolwork, David spent three years at Loomis as a freshman and one as a sophomore and never graduated. Each year when they discussed David's lack of progress, Mrs. Batchelder would prevail on her husband to keep him in school.
Park's closest friend at Loomis was Whitner Bissell, known as Whit, the school's star actor. Bissell was outgoing and popular, in contrast to David, who was regarded as amusing and witty by those who knew him well but was overlooked by most of the other students. "David didn't mingle that way boys do, gathering together to raise hell," Bissell recalled. But "he was always cheerful, I remember, sometimes quiet. I would say he was more on the unhappy side than happy side. He felt constrained and held down from what he wanted to do." Bissell suspected that David might have been eager to get away. "We were a rigid school with definite rules. He had to conform, and he was an independent spirit. He was not one of the boys."
Edward Barnard often sat next to David in study hall. He recalls that David drew all the time and remarked on the odd way he held his pencil for writing-between his index and middle fingers. David began smoking when he was about sixteen, and he told Barnard how much he enjoyed this, that it was one reason he looked forward to vacations.
David acted as Mrs. Batchelder's assistant and was allowed to work in her studio. He probably lived in the small apartment in the studio for a time, definitely lived in a dormitory, and may have stayed in the Batchelders' house. Park's early mentors, Edith Park Truesdell and Mary Gay, were respected artists within their Boston milieu, but Evelyn Longman Batchelder was an artist of another order-a professional with a national reputation. Margaret Newton, who was a twenty-five-year-old faculty wife in 1927, recalled "what fun it was to chat with David. Once I said to Mrs. B, 'What a nice boy he is.' Mrs. B opened wide her big brown eyes, and she said, 'He's more than that, my dear. He's a gifted artist, even at his age. That boy is so talented.' Her eyes just shone when she talked about Dave Park. I never heard Mrs. Batchelder go overboard with a compliment that strong. She was quite thrilled to have a boy at school who was a real artist, not just a talented kid."
Park made his mark at Loomis at faculty-student art exhibits. During his third year the school newspaper reported that he and three other students "skillfully arranged a show of great value" in the gymnasium to raise money for a movie projector for the school. The front-page article singled out Park for selling a number of his widely admired landscape paintings, and "the proceeds from these were large." Park took part in two Boston Society of Independent Artists shows before he left Loomis. He was particularly proud that in 1925, when he was fourteen, Juliana Force, later a founder of the Whitney Museum, bought one of his landscape paintings at a nonjuried exhibition in Boston.
Also in 1925, a few years after he painted the little girl in the woods, Park painted Proserpine, in which a young woman stands isolated in a sylvan setting. The figure's remote allure suggests an adolescent's reverie, while the rich palette of mid-range hues and adept use of light and shadow show his increasing mastery.
A crucial work of this period is Park's tempera painting on paper of the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1925, fig. 5), inspired by the publicity for the upcoming silent film that would thrill multitudes of moviegoers the following year. Park depicts the hero and his rival racing their teams of horses around the stadium before crowds of cheering spectators. The race in Ben-Hur highlights the unjust treatment of the hero, Ben-Hur, his mother, and his sister by his former childhood friend. Rivalry and a desire for public acclaim are two themes dramatized in the film's chariot race, and they seem to inform the painting as well.
The motif of the arched colonnade rimming the amphitheater is the first appearance of a favorite compositional device of Park's. Although this pattern has a formal significance, here in its relation to the cheering crowd and as the backdrop for Ben-Hur's heroic action, the row of arches may symbolize a submerged wish for public acclaim. The arches transmute in subsequent paintings into a row of pilings, a trestle, a fence, an awning, and a row of trees or bushes, as along the top edge of Bather with Knee Up (1957, plate 29). The motif is also translated into a striped awning and even the top edge of a shower curtain in Standing Male Nude in the Shower (1955-57, plate 15).
In 1928, during his final spring semester at Loomis, an exhibition of woodblock prints by Hiroshige, Hokusai, and other Japanese artists inspired Park to paint one of his most charming juvenile works-Mountain View, a watercolor of a snow-topped Mount Fuji-like peak rising above a lake. Dappled waves in the foreground reflect a string of colorful paper lanterns that Park might have borrowed from one of Maurice Prendergast's Boston park scenes, and the small houses along the shore are clearly modeled on a Japanese print illustrated in the school newspaper. Park learned from this exhibition and the lessons of the artist Germaine Cheruy, the wife of the school's French teacher, who explained to Loomis students how to translate the techniques of Japanese woodblock prints to paint. Five years later Park put his printmaking skills to good use in his hand-colored stencils of scenes from Genesis.
Park had a remarkable ability to bring clearly remembered images into his paintings. The mid-1920s watercolor portrait of his mother in profile, sitting and sewing in a wicker rocking chair, looks like something painted from observation but probably was painted from memory. The motif of a seated woman in profile in quiet, contemplative activity is one he returned to in his mature works, particularly in paintings of his wife.
Park probably did not see much avant-garde art firsthand during his youth, as the art on view in Boston during the early 1920s was largely traditional. The Museum of Fine Arts, the Fogg, and the Boston Public Library were his primary resources, and while at Loomis, he may have visited the collection of historical and decorative art at the Wadsworth Atheneum in nearby Hartford. His family's taste was basically attuned toward the classical and conservative, aside from Edith Park's discovery of CΘzanne and Matisse at the Armory Show. Park would have seen Piero della Francesca's fresco Hercules (ca. 1470, fig. 6) at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The sense of presence of Hercules, a decidedly human nude, is a quality that Park later gave to his figures. He would also have seen works by Maurice Prendergast, Winslow Homer, and John Twachtman. Boston's genteel figurative tradition, although not a major influence, also helped form Park's aesthetic. The work of the Boston School painters much admired by Edith Truesdell hung in galleries and homes around Boston while Park was growing up.
Increasingly, David's all-consuming focus on painting affected his relations with family members. When David and Dick were adolescents in boarding school and Marion was at Bryn Mawr-where her father's cousin Marion Edwards Park was president-the family was rarely together except in the summer, at the house in Peterborough. One of Ted's very early memories is of family picnics at a special mossy patch about fifty yards from the house. "David was just one of us," Ted said. "It would be a family thing-there would be the six of us," blueberry picking, for instance. Later on, Ted noted, as David got a little older-about fourteen-he very often would not take part as much as Marion and Dick. "David would simply disappear. He would vanish rather than go on an outing with the rest of us. I can remember being disappointed: why isn't David here? But he wanted to go paint something."
Dr. Park and Dick had built David a studio in Peterborough, basically a small cabin with north light, about fifty yards from the main house. David equipped it with secondhand furniture-a little table and three old wooden chairs that he bought and repainted-and some castoffs from the family. Some of the furniture in the house at Peterborough-the wrought-iron lamps, wicker rocker, and straight dining room chairs-would appear in his paintings from the 1950s, such as Profile and Lamp (1952, fig. 38, see p. 000).
Although David withdrew somewhat from his father in adolescence, it was not over religion. "Dad never brought religion home with him, perhaps in the hope that without having it forced upon us we might discover it for ourselves," Ted said. "David wasn't interested in the church and had the knack of making his lack of interest in anything so apparent that no one pushed him very hard. He just turned away. But he did resent the way Dad would trespass on his freedom in Peterborough. And Dad-very structured and self-disciplined-would seek our help in various projects. Dick and I enjoyed the physical work. David didn't. It wasn't that he was physically lazy but that it got in the way of his freedom."
David's need for freedom may have influenced his decision to stop wearing glasses around this time. He later said that he broke his glasses and neglected to replace them but then made a conscious choice to give up wearing them. Still, he did have vision problems-probably nearsightedness. "When we would go to the movies and would be standing across the street reading the theater marquee, David would look through a tiny circle he made with his thumb and forefinger," Ellen Baker, a woman who knew him years later, recalled. "The tiny hole would focus the letters at a distance."
Dick and Marion were part of a group of about a dozen teenage boys and girls in Peterborough who did everything together-from picking blueberries or having dinner at one another's houses to going to the movies or square-dancing. David was on the periphery, as it happened that there were only a few boys in his age range in the group. The Neighborhood Club, at a pond about a mile from the Parks' house, was where the group came together to swim, sun, row, and canoe. Dick was the star tennis player. There were also sack races and hay rides.
Flirtations were a feature of these summer gatherings, and David's siblings remember that he was often in love. "David adored girls-in an absolutely chaste New England way," Ted recalled. "He talked about them incessantly. Of course he was absolutely oversexed to the nth degree." The summer of 1928 David was smitten with Sue Clymer. The Clymers lived near the Neighborhood Club pond, and Sue's mother held open house every afternoon. Her children and their friends gathered for iced tea and cookies after swimming, tennis, and riding. That summer Dr. and Mrs. Park, accompanied by Ted, traveled to Europe through the generosity of a parishioner. The three older children, along with a maid and three houseguests-Elting and John Morison and Hilda Wright-stayed in the house at Peterborough. "It was a wonderful experience. We were sprung from older people for the first time," Elting Morison recalled. One afternoon the group decided on the spur of the moment to drive to Boston for a Pops concert and drive back the same night. The orchestra played Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which David later bought a recording of and declared his favorite piece of music.
Toward the end of the summer, Sue Clymer recalled, "David told me he loved me. He wanted to be engaged to me. But I said I couldn't. 'See, I have an engagement ring on my finger, and I'm going to marry somebody else.' I wore it all summer. He turned around and walked out. And apparently he just went home and picked up his stuff and left." She did not see him after that. "For several days he wasn't at the pool, and I asked somebody maybe on the third day, and they said he had gone out west."
Park left on the train in the company of one of Marion's beaux, Edward Porter, a brother of the artist Fairfield Porter and the photographer Eliot Porter. They traveled together as far as Chicago, where the Porters lived. Park then continued on to Denver, where he joined Edith Truesdell on a drive to Los Angeles.