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Found Girl: Woman with Coffee Pot, a long-lost painting from an influential local artist, finally comes back to the Bay Area. 

Wednesday, Feb 18 2015

The 10 million people who read the June 8, 1962, issue of LIFE magazine saw an America that was undergoing profound cultural shifts. More people than ever were worried about weight gain (Kellogg's advertised a cereal "for common sense weight control"). More people than ever were flying abroad ("Americans in a new age of world travel," read one article teaser). And more people than ever were considering the art world's "current resurgence of the figure in painting," as the magazine labeled the trend.

LIFE devoted eight full pages to the art-world development, paying close attention to the work of Bay Area painters Elmer Bischoff, Paul Wonner, Richard Diebenkorn, and David Park, whose featured painting in LIFE, Woman with Coffeepot, offered an unforgettable image: A woman both beautiful and monstrous, whose body was a pastiche of thick, colorful paint strokes that were like bandages on a burn victim. Park, who drew Woman with Coffeepot in 1958, was straddling the line between abstraction and representation. The people in Park's paintings from this period seemed half-finished and even primitive, as if they were a race of human sculptures trying to find form.

"Art ought to be a troublesome thing," Park said to Bay Area curator and art historian Paul Mills around the time he painted Woman with Coffeepot, "and one of my reasons for painting representationally is that this makes for much more troublesome pictures."

That troublesomeness is evident in "Interiors and Places: David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff" at Hackett | Mill gallery, where Woman with Coffeepot is being displayed for the first time in the Bay Area. Soon after Park painted it, a prominent art dealer, George Staempfli, purchased the work, which then found its way into the hands of a wealthy private collector Arnold Maremont, from where it all but disappeared for 50 years.

When San Francisco art historian Nancy Boas was researching her acclaimed 2012 book, David Park: A Painter's Life, she tried tracking down Woman with Coffeepot through paper trails and interviews with Maremont's family and associates — to no avail. Her book lists the location of Woman with Coffeepot as "whereabouts unknown." Only in the past two years did the truth emerge: The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, a museum and school in a small southwestern Michigan city (population: 75,000), had the painting, which it purchased along with two Diebenkorn works for $50,000 in 1968.

Park's paintings sell for millions today, and he's recognized as the progenitor of the Bay Area Figurative Movement that changed the course of American art history. Led by Park, Diebenkorn, and Bischoff, all of whom taught at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), the movement reintroduced figuration at a time in the 1950s when Abstract Expressionism — symbolized by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Clyfford Still — remained art's ascendant style.

Park pushed his beliefs even at the expense of his own career. As detailed in David Park: A Painter's Life, which Boas spent 20 years researching and writing, Park frequently butted heads with administrators at the California School of Fine Arts, and with Still, who taught there and stressed the orthodoxy of abstraction. Eventually, Park lost his position as a school instructor and for several years had to work odd jobs, including a graveyard shift at the General Cable company, to support his career and his family. As he got older, Park's figures gestated from lifelike people to men and women who were much more shadowy and much more mysterious, as in the painting at Hackett | Mill titled Green Canoe, where a totem-like man rows from a green shell that's merged with a green waterway. Where does the canoe begin and the water end? The trees, limbs, and waves dance together in a seamless mélange of background and foreground.

Park, who died from cancer in 1960, at age 49, found increasing success as an artist in the last decade of his life, after he had made the leap to figuration. That leap was famously cemented in 1949, when Park drove from his home in Berkeley and took all of his "nonobjective" paintings to the city dump, where he threw them into the ground to be buried. Later, Park said those works were too self-conscious — too beholden to his desire to be a famous artist and follow artistic trends.

The David Park we see in "Interiors and Places" isolated people in enclosed spaces or public scenes and merged these men and women into their surroundings, as in Woman Reading from 1957, where the reader's red blouse fuses into the red wall behind her, and in The Bus from 1952, where a pedestrian stands alone beside a bus, with orange jacket and hat almost submerged with the bus's orange coat of paint.

By exhibiting Park's 1950s work with the works of Bischoff and Diebenkorn from the same period, Hackett | Mill shows how these three artists — best friends who critiqued each other's paintings — extended their influence to each other. Boas, who is speaking about Park at the gallery on Thursday, Feb. 19, says that the artist "brought humanity into an abstract view." Woman with Coffeepot, on loan from the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, is the exhibit's centerpiece. Boas describes her search for the panting as a "two-decade treasure hunt. It was a relief and a delight to find it. It's in beautiful condition. Having seen a reproduction in LIFE, and a black-and-white photo, I was not prepared for how wonderful it is. We're fortunate to see this work first-hand."

Especially in a small gallery setting. When I took in "Interiors and Places" at Hackett | Mill on a Friday afternoon, I was one of only two art-goers there. Surrounded by almost a dozen of Park's 1950s paintings, you may think that these works were easy to create. They weren't. It took Park 40 years to find a style that was uniquely his. The sunbathers and boaters and coffee drinkers that he put on canvas were echoes of his own life, reflections of memories and day-to-day moments that resonated with him and — it turns out — an art market that was ready for something different, and that still believes Park got it right.


About The Author

Jonathan Curiel


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