"Bay Area Figurative Art: 1950-1965," which opened Thursday at the Museum of Modern Art (through Feb. 4), has occupied a high place on the list of most-anticipated exhibitions of the season. There was much to recommend it.
Inevitably, the show would feature underrecognized paintings by David Park, the first major modernist to emerge from California. It would chronicle the early figurative paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, a widely acclaimed artist who came to the forefront in the '70s with a highly prized series of luminous abstractions. Most important of all, this was an exhibition whose time had come.
The '50s have been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years, representing the moment when the torch of modernism was definitively passed from Europe to the United States. Now, as post-modern claims have been pressed against traditionally modernist territory, history is being written in exciting and controversial ways. Here was a rare opportunity to unravel significant aspects of a pivotal period in postwar American art.
The exhibition goes a long way toward satisfying certain of those expectations. If it doesn't go quite far enough, the show nonetheless manages to shed a lot of welcome light.
Not the least of its virtues is the old-fashioned, archeological digging required to mount the show. As with most American painting and sculpture outside New York, Bay Area figurative art remained obscure--more local legend and oral myth than seriously examined cultural legacy--with even basic factual data unavailable.
Wisely recognizing that two developments in the '80s had conspired to train the curatorial spotlight onto its home turf, the museum seized the day. First, the wild success of American, German and Italian neo-Expressionist figurative painting made the earlier Bay Area contingent seem like long-lost ancestors. Second, as New York finally was toppled as the only serious center for contemporary art, history "elsewhere" suddenly mattered too.
Guest curator Caroline A. Jones, an art historian at Stanford University, has assembled 90 paintings, sculptures and works on paper. She has tossed aside the standard, sketchy story of the period, which goes like this: Painters Park, Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff abandoned New York-style abstraction in favor of figurative painting, thus spawning a slew of followers whose work wasn't outpaced until the '60s. Instead of the rise and fall of Bay Area figuration, she gives us a multigenerational view.
Along with James Weeks, their teaching colleague from the old California School of Fine Arts, Park, Diebenkorn and Bischoff are grouped as the first generation. The second generation consists of several of their students: Joan Brown, Bruce McGaw and Manuel Neri, who is the lone sculptor among nine painters.
In between is what Jones calls a "bridge generation"--Nathan Oliveira, Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown--artists not intimately involved with the first group, but who built upon their precedent.
This expansive scheme has the virtue of opening up a hitherto tightly knotted tangle of art and artists. People, places and connections start to become clear. The show's catalogue contains a useful, cross-referenced chronology for all 10 artists, while thoughtful juxtapositions of paintings in the galleries deftly show the give-and-take of artistic discourse, as a painting by, say, Bischoff answers one by Diebenkorn, who proceeds to expand upon their dialogue in yet another canvas.
Jones' principal aim here is to demonstrate that Bay Area figuration constitutes a coherent movement, rather than having been an accumulation of isolated individuals who saw Abstract Expressionism as a moribund, even alien style and who simply began to paint recognizable figures as an antidote. This doesn't mean these 10 artists produced a manifesto or saw themselves as working toward some singular aesthetic goal. It does mean that a critical sense of artistic community was at work.
The point is convincingly made--and decisive. For the modernist sensibility is one in which artistic maturity is produced through hard, passionate, informed, critical argument. The figurative art produced in the Bay Area in the '50s embodies that.
Of course, there is a kicker: Two-thirds of the art in the show is distinctly minor, at best, and wholly negligible, at worst. Pride of place rightly has been given to Park, Diebenkorn and Bischoff--and the three account for nearly half the paintings on view, and for almost all the really convincing ones--but among the rest there is a lot of flat-footed work to be seen.
(The chief exception is Joan Brown, whose loony, early-1960s images of Venus-like women and faithful pets are made from heaving, buckling paint so thick it appears to have been laid on with a trowel. Practically sculptural reliefs, they're the wildly mannered ripostes of a student laboring under the weight of her celebrated teachers. Within a few years, Brown abandoned the approach.)
Still, the small nucleus of the show shines brightly. The early years belong to Park, the later years to Diebenkorn, and Bischoff turns up now and again with the occasional dazzler.
In his pastoral mode, Bischoff was capable of great range--from the crude drama of compositional confrontation to the sheer, sweet pleasure of color and paint--but his commitment to formal abstraction often results in figures that melt into fluid puddles.
By contrast, Diebenkorn built on Matisse. He was regularly able to coax figurative and abstract elements into radiant compositions whose fragile stillness seems both hard-won and painfully transient. Diebenkorn's best work has a melancholic loveliness.
As time goes by, however, it turns out to be Park who, among figurative painters of the '50s, looks better. Following on the heels of the Whitney Museum's retrospective exhibition last year, this show confirms Park's stature and places him in fuller context.
Park's mature career was terribly short, finally taking off around 1956 and effectively ending three years later. Ten years after it began, he was dead from cancer, at the age of 49. He had spent his early years as an American Scene-type realist, had a bout with Picasso-inspired Cubist abstraction and had gone through another fling with Abstract Expressionism. In 1950, Park began to tie these earlier enthusiasms together, ultimately developing blunt images of bathers hammered together from heavily slathered strokes of color.
Park's brutish images of bathers are uniformly exceptional. The bather motif, which is found repeatedly in his youthful realist work (as well as in the later paintings of Bischoff, Wonner and both Browns) calls up a traditional iconography of earthly paradise--of rebirth and rejuvenation. These stark, Edenic pictures aren't playful. Dark and wary, they represent a distinctly primitive culture remaking itself in the postwar years.
Alas, the curator never really takes stock of the subject matter of this figurative art, which is largely discussed within a history of styles. In successfully constructing a stylistic movement, "Bay Area Figurative Art: 1950-1965" paradoxically ends up confirming just how brief and narrow this undeniably brilliant moment really was.