Palo Alto

David Park

Standford University Museum of Art

David Park had a way of making the human figures in his late pictures seem timeless in their solidity and placement yet fleeting in character; the more relaxed Park was with his paint, the sturdier they became. They might be the stand-up, schematic remnants of a golden age; they might be trees. Such figures were represented in this show of works on paper (1934–1960) by seven undated ink-wash drawings and a dozen gouaches from the series of gouaches Park did in 1960, within the last four months of his life. They exemplify Park at his most declarative and vibrant. The rest of the selection comprised drawings in pencil, chalk, watercolor, crayon, and felt-tipped pen from the mid ’30s on, and a large collage of portrait heads from 1952–53. The pencil drawings show various modes of compression and an innate quirkiness. Park liked to give his figures little if any headroom against the top edge of the sheet; he regularly made his male figures raw-boned and lanky and the women rotund and squat.

Park’s few years with abstract painting in the ’40s led him to a stronger grasp of the whole surface and how to divide it into large, simple units. The Art Deco–type cubism he had adapted for his sequence of “Old Testament Themes,” 1934, was clean-cut; in fact, the drawings in that series resemble studies for relief sculpture. The bold, plain colors of the final gouaches come across as succinct and a bit detached from one another; within their overall spaciousness, they have the tidy, stabbing gradations of woodcut layers. By contrast, some of the no-less spacious halftone nudes done in ink appear as if built of ashes.

In his last years, Park combined the two salient thematic impulses of his work, the domestic and idyllic. He saw the ceremonial in odd chunks of space occasioned by people in contemporary settings. He trusted his memory for such things and finally trusted his art to reveal them. The late figures unfold from uncertain environs. They are models of Park’s feeling for a humanity wedged between rootedness and deliquescence. The light that sets each of them off is peculiar, sometimes catastrophic, never nebulous. It beams in abruptly from behind, settling along the contours of shoulders and legs and feeding the pressure that makes a facial caricature—constructed of fat shorthand strokes for a nose, eyes, an ear or two, a neatly turned-up (or, in profile, strangely puckered) mouth—look to have burst against the surface plane.

Given that pressure, it’s amazing how much breathing space Park managed to allot his people, even when they’re huddled en masse. Among the gouaches (all 1960), Group of Ten may be about solitude in the herd, but its ebullience is cumulative: the tangent figures gang up on the light, redirecting it in a fitful fugue effect. In Woman With Baby, a remarkable tenderness issues from the equating of touch with the flicker of light across bodies. An isolated figure, such as the one in Rowboat, appears more tense; twisting with his oars against the flash of sun, he becomes a piece of time, a kind of waywardly reflexive clock.

Bill Berkson