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 artists from the San Francisco Bay Area who abandoned painting in the prevailing style of Abstract Expressionism in favor of a return to figuration. The movement, spanning from late 1940’s into the early 1970’s, is often divided into three groups, or generations: the First Generation, the Bridge Generation, and the Second Generation. Prominent artists associated with this movement include: David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Wayne Thiebaud, James Weeks, Nathan Oliveira, Theophilus Brown, Paul John Wonner, Roland Petersen, John Hultberg, Frank Lobdell, Bruce McGaw, Henry Villierme, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, and Robert Qualters.


In 1949, artist David Park, then a San Francisco Abstract Expressionist, loaded his car with as many of his paintings as could fit, drove to Berkeley, and threw them all in the dump; he was through with Abstract Expressionism.(((page 11)))) His trip to the Berkeley city dump symbolized his return to figuration and decision to, as he described it, make “pictures” not “paintings.”(((page 1)))) A teacher at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), Park’s change of direction sparked a following among younger Bay Area artists such as Robert Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff, and began the return to figuration and representation that would come to be known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement.


The Bay Area Figurative Movement descended from various other artistic movements. Its use of form and shape is taken from Expressionism. Regionalism inspired the movement's decision to draw from its geographical location for its subject. The Fauvist use of color (with Diebenkorn and Park giving special consideration to Henri Matisse) can be seen in the movement's varied color palette. The movement also prioritized figuration over Abstract Expressionism's formalistic prioritization of style, a decision that would become the movement's defining characteristic.

Additionally, the Bay Area Figurative Movement drew from the traditions of still life and landscape, choosing to focus on everyday objects and Bay Area locales to fill its canvases. However, the movement is not entirely an appropriation of stylistic elements of older art movements. Characterizing the movement especially is its use of flattened perspective.


In her book, “Bay Area Figurative Art, 1950-1965”, Caroline A. Jones divides the Bay Area Figurative Movement into three generations: a First Generation, Second Generation, and between them, a Bridge Generation. The First Generation includes the movement’s founders and early advocates.The Second Generation includes their students along with later arrivals to the movement. The Bridge Generation, though temporally intermediary between the First and Second Generation, often includes artists ideologically proximate but never directly influenced by or involved with either other group.

First Generation[edit]

David Park was the first member of the movement, with Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff following soon after. Like these first three, many of the First Generation artists were at one point avid adherents to Abstract Expressionism, and had worked previously in that style of painting. But with the first abandonment of non-objective, wholly abstract painting in favor of working with the figure, the movement would grow to incorporate artists throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, including James Weeks and Wayne Thiebaud.

During the initial stages of the movement, the First Generation argued that their deviation from the artistic vogue of the time was a move away from what they considered to be the stifling style of Abstract Expressionism. They chose instead to return to recognizable figuration. Park himself is said to have butted heads with Clyfford Still, who taught alongside Park and Bischoff at the then-California School of Fine Arts. Park objected to what he'd labelled "the Cult of Still" — an objection that would go on to inspire his famous trip to the Berkeley city dump.

Park and Bischoff's first experimental forays back towards figuration were still lives. Park's "Rehearsal" and "Kids on Bikes" were Park's first major attempts at figuration.

At the time of the movement's inception, Richard Diebenkorn was a student at the California School of Fine Arts. He would go on to follow in the experimental footsteps of his friends and mentors, Park and Bischoff, as they returned to figuration. Often called the movements most gifted painter, Diebenkorn painted landscapes and cityscapes that made use of the movements characteristic anti-Abstract Expressionist style among various Bay Area locations.

Nevertheless, the art produced by the First Generation, though its subject matter and execution differed greatly from that of Abstract Expressionism, descended from it, making use of that movement's gestural application of paint to represent definite figures.

While First Generation artists like Richard Diebenkorn would go on to return to abstraction, the impact made by the First Generation of the Bay Area Figurative Movement would continue into its later generations and mark the end of mainstream painting solely in the Abstract Expressionist style.

Bridge Generation[edit]

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

Second Generation[edit]

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.


  • 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.
  • Gomez, Edward M. (February 5, 1990). “The San Francisco Rebellion”.[2] 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”.[3] 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


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