Bay Area Figurative Movement

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Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape I (Landscape No. 1), 1963, oil on canvas, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Paul Wonner, Still Life with Cup, oil on canvas, 1959, private collection

The Bay Area Figurative Movement (also known as the Bay Area Figurative School, Bay Area Figurative Art, Bay Area Figuration, and similar variations) was a mid-20th Century art movement made up of a group of artists in the San Francisco Bay Area who abandoned working in the prevailing style of Abstract Expressionism in favor of a return to figuration in painting during the 1950s and onward into the 1960s.

Spanning two decades, this art movement is often broken down into three groups, or generations: the First Generation, the Bridge Generation, and the Second Generation.

Many of the "First Generation" artists in this movement were avid fans of Abstract Expressionism, and worked in that manner, until several of them abandoned non-objective painting in favor of working with the figure. Among these First Generation Bay Area Figurative School artists were: David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Rex Ashlock, Elmer Bischoff, Wayne Thiebaud, and James Weeks.

The "Bridge Generation" included the artists: Nathan Oliveira, Theophilus Brown, Paul John Wonner, Roland Petersen, John Hultberg, and Frank Lobdell.[1]

Many "Second Generation" artists of this movement studied under the First Generation artists, or were late starters. Among these Second Generation artists were: Bruce McGaw, Henry Villierme, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, and Robert Qualters.

Many San Francisco area schools and institutions were important to the development and refinement of this art movement, including: the San Francisco Art Institute, the California College of Arts and Crafts, and University of California, Berkeley.

First Generation Artists[edit]

David Park[edit]

David Park was arguably the most important painter of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. David park was born 17 March 1911 in Boston to Mary Turner and Charles Edward Park. He attended school in Connecticut and moved to Los Angeles in 1928 where he studied at Otis Art Institute. A year later, he moved to Berkeley where he married Lydia Newell in 1930 and with whom he has two daughters. His first solo show was in 1933 at the Oakland Art Gallery. In 1943, he began teaching at California School of Fine Arts (CSFA), now known as San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI).

David Park was a respected Abstract Expressionist painter in San Francisco and one of the first painters to move towards the figurative style of paintings. In the spring of 1951, Park won a prize for a figurative canvas that he submitted to a competitive exhibition. Park’s turn to figurative style baffled some of his colleagues, as at the time, abstract painting was the only way to go for progressive artists. His courageous effort to move away from abstract paintings to figure prompted a rise in figurative art which would go on to be one of the most important postwar developments on the West Coast.

Rather than going through a slow transformation from Abstract paintings to Figures, it is believed that Park’s abstractions disappeared instantly. Although still debatable, it was found in extensive notes of an interview with Park’s Aunt that Park drove his abstract paintings to a dump and released or ritually destroyed them. His colleagues did not even know about this transformation until the following year.

In 2004, Hackett Freedman Gallery in San Francisco held an exhibition of 35 of David Park's works from 1953 to 1960. These were the works that marked the final years of his life and the exhibition was held to celebrate his life as well as his return to figure painting in 1950, which was instrumental in starting the Movement. Some of the earlier works in the exhibition suggest that Park responded to the art of Max Beckmann and his influence is particularly visible in The Band (1955). Over the years, Park's palette turned towards an ebullient chromaticism, but his carving approach to paint handling could be seen in his work throughout until finally he decided to give up oils in 1959.

Some of David Park's important works are Mother in Law (1954-1955), Violin and Cello (1939), Torso (1959), Figure in Chair (1960), etc. [2]

Elmer Bischoff[edit]

Elmer Nelson Bischoff, in his late thirties and forties had an extensive phase of what he called "Picassoesque mouthings." He took the Abstract work much more seriously than Park and consequently his Abstract work was much more popular than that of Park's Abstract work. It is because of this that some people had a hard time understanding his abandonments of Abstract art and moving towards Figurative Art.

Bischoff had a newfound outlook on art once he returned from war in 1945. He felt that he had to challenge all the assumptions that he held about art as well as life. When asked about this in an interview, he said, “Until then art had been an external acquisition; [but now it] became more of a quest.” It was around this time that he was hired as a short-term replacement at the school of fine arts.

Just like his Abstract work, Bischoff achieved great success with his early figurative works. Bischoff entered his painting Figure and Red Wall in the Fifth Annual Oil and Sculpture Exhibition at the Richmond Art Center and won the $200 first prize for it. This feat earned him a solo show at the Paul Kantor Gallery in Los Angeles. However, it was a one-person show of paintings and drawings in January 1956 at the California School of Fine Arts gallery that Bischoff believed had the biggest impact on his future.

Some of Bischoff's important works are Figure at window with Boat (1964), Playground (1954), The River (1953),[3]

Richard Diebenkorn[edit]

Out of all the First Generation artists, it was Diebenkorn that took the biggest risk by turning to figuration in 1955. Diebenkorn was nationally recognized for his abstract work. His abstract painting Younger American Painters was included in the exhibition at The Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum in 1954 and it was extensively shown by dealers in Los Angeles and Chicago. Thus it was a big step for him to turn his back on abstract work. Along with his national reputation for his abstract work, Diebenkorn also was a beloved abstractionist among the locals in Sausalito.

After that he focused on figurative art but it wasn't for the next two years, until 1956, that he tried to attempt complex figurative paintings. His earliest figurative works seemed to loosely be based on self-portraits.

Some of Richard Diebenkorn's important works are Cityscape 1 (1963), Interior with Doorway (1962), etc. [4]

Bridge Generation Artists[edit]

Thiophilus Brown and Paul John Wonner[edit]

Brown and Wonner both felt strongly influenced by the more established artists' work. In 1955, both Brown and Wonner rented studio spaces within the same building which was also the building where Diebenkorn worked. Diebenkorn, Bischoff and Park joined Brown and Wonner to hold life-drawing sessions. They were occasionally joined by James Weeks and Nathan Oliviera.

Wonner's figurative works were displayed in an exhibition held at the California School of Fine Arts gallery late in 1956. From the very beginning Wonner was committed to conventions of representation, and identified line as a firm descriptive boundary and edge. His 1956 works have figures cut horizontally which show more aggression than his previous works such as Glider.

Some of Brown's important works are Male Nude Seated (1960), Sun and Moon (1960), etc. while Wonner's important works are Side of the house, Malibu (1965), Mountain Near Tucson (1963), etc. [5]

Nathan Oliveira[edit]

Nathan Oliveira moved a lot since the birth before finally reaching San Francisco after the war. It was in San Francisco that he attended high school. When he was young, he had interest in music which slowly faded away as he grew older. It was his trip to M. H. de Young Memorial Museum that made him decide to become a portrait painter. He later went on to serve in the army where he managed to keep up with his art scene.

Oliveira's early figurative works tend to have more detail and color which can be seen in his Seated Man with Dog. His works completed in the San Leandro studio in 1959, in his own words, "became the very foundation of [his] whole identity as a painter in [his] country."

Some of Nathan's important works are Seated Man with Dog (1957), Man Walking (1958), Adolescent by the Bed (1959), etc.

Second Generation Artists[edit]

Bruce McGaw[edit]

Bruce Mcgaw was born in 1935 and was the only artist from the second generation to be included in the 1957 Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting exhibition. He studied in California College of Arts and Crafts and took one of the first classes taught by Diebenkorn in 1955. Mcgaw had a close relationship with Diebenkorn and Diebenkorn even met with McGaw's parents to show them his support for their son's works. Mcgaw also studied with Leon Goldin where he worked with abstraction but he was never really inspired by Goldin.

Figuration was not a furtive process for McGaw. Like other second-generation artists, he was not confined to any particular style and moved from one style to the other. One of McGaw's first mature figurative paintings clearly showed influences from Diebenkorn but McGaw also showed a lot of new features of his own. He liked working on a very small scale and broke the body into standard torso views or odd, synecdochal parts.

Some of McGaw's important works are Abstraction (1955), Figure (1957), Patt's Feet (1957) etc.

Joan Brown[edit]

Joan Brown's career as a figurative artist spans from 1955-1965, and for half of that time she was a student. Due to this, she has the shortest period of mature Bay Area Figurative work out of all the important artists. Despite this, her time as a figurative artist was intense and productive and provided some of the most important works of the Movement.

In her senior year, her parents wanted her to enroll in Lone Mountain College, a single-sex Catholic institution. She came across an advertisement of California School of Fine Arts while looking for an alternative. She loved the environment of the school even though she didn't have much exposure to art. When her first year didn't go too well, she considered dropping out but ended up staying when she was convinced by Bill Brown, a twenty-four-year-old student, to stay and take the landscape class by Bischoff. Bill was also the one to introduce her to art history when he give her a number of books where she was first encountered works of artists such as Goya, Velàzquez, Rembrandt, and the Impressionists.

Some of Joan Brown's important works are Woman and Dog in Room with Chinese Rug (1975), Noel at the Table with a Large Bowl of Fruit (1963), etc.[6]

Manuel Neri[edit]

Manuel Neri was a sculptor. Neri explored abstraction during the early stages of his career, like all the younger Bay Area Figurative artists. It was only after he left school in 1959 that he took up figuration. It allowed him to synthesize his interests in color and form and to play with the ambiguities of content. It is the non-specificity of his figures and their abstract qualities that make his sculptors part of the Bay Area Figurative Movement and not just any contemporary figurative sculpture in America.

Neri, only two years younger than Nathan Oliveira, had a similar childhood and like Oliveira, he had no interest in art as a kid. The only reason Neri took a course in ceramics in school was to lighten his load. His teacher for ceramics was Roy Walker who encouraged him to further pursue art by taking higher classes. Neri soon dropped his engineering classes and in 1951, started taking courses at the California College of Arts and Crafts, although he officially enrolled in 1952.

Some of Neri's important works are Untitled Standing Figure (1956-1957), College Painting No. 1 (1958-59), etc.[7]


  • Boas, Nancy (2012). David Park: A Painter's Life. Berkeley: University of California. ISBN 9780520268418
  • Chadwick, Witney (1984). “Narrative Imagism and the Figurative Tradition in Northern California Painting”. Art Journal 45(4), 309.
  • Falk, Peter Hastings. (1999) Who Was Who in American Art: 1564-1975, Madison, CT: Sound View Press, Vol. I, p.143.
  • Gomez, Edward M. (February 5, 1990). “The San Francisco Rebellion”.[8] Time.
  • Jones, Caroline A. (1990) Bay Area Figurative Art: 1950-1965, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-06842-4
  • Knight, Christopher (December 15, 1989). “ART REVIEW: Figurative ‘50s Work Whose Time Has Come”.[9] Los Angeles Times.
  • Landauer, Susan (2000) The Lighter Side of Bay Area Figuration, San Jose, CA: Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, ISBN 1-891246-03-8
  • Landauer, Susan (2001). Elmer Bischoff: The Ethics of Paint. Berkeley: University of California. ISBN 0520230426
  • Livingston, Jane, John Elderfield (1997). The Art of Richard Diebenkorn. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997. ISBN 0520212584
  • Van Proyen, Mark. "David Park at Hackett-Freedman." Art In America 92, no. 4 (April 2004): 140-141. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed May 13, 2016).


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