You know how it is with old friends. You have a special understanding, a bond that can't easily be re-created with new acquaintances, no matter how dazzling or charming they are. Walking into the Newport Harbor Art Museum gallery that houses "Postwar California Painting 1950-1980," I smiled. There they were, my old buddies, and they looked just the same.
The handful of paintings in this mini-exhibit account for just one-fifth of "Different Stories: Five Views of the Collection," a potentially viable idea that doesn't work very well, at least in this format.
Some of the mini-show groupings--particularly "Sculpture: Resisting Gravity"--have the strained quality of unlike things yoked together by fiat and desperation. The presence of decidedly second-rate work also takes some of the bloom off the pleasure of examining the museum's collection. On the other hand, the exhibit--organized by assistant curator Marilu Knode--includes some useful wall texts that help to situate the works in the context of artistic movements and the artists' lives.
Overall, the best single thing about "Different Stories" is probably the chance to take another look at David Park's masterful painting of 1957, "Bather With Knee Up" and some of the other postwar California canvases on view.
Park was a Bostonian who moved permanently to the Bay Area in 1941, when he was 30, and worked in a vivid, abstract style. Nine years later, he unexpectedly packed up all his canvases and took them to the San Francisco dump. His next painting, "Kids on Bikes" (not in the exhibit), contained two images of boys on bicycles on a yellow road bordered by an abstracted white fence.
The work was a shocker to his Bay Area colleagues who still subscribed to the idea that Abstract Expressionism was the only truly modern style of painting. (Soon, they, too, would pedal back to the figure, for longer or shorter periods.)
Park said--in a quote reprinted in Thomas Albright's "Art in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945 to 1980"--that he realized he could paint "with more absorption, with a certain enthusiasm for the subject which would allow some of the aesthetic qualities, such as color and composition, to evolve more naturally."
In "Bather With Knee Up" (which also figured prominently in the Whitney Museum's Park retrospective, shown at the Laguna Art Museum a couple of years ago), he achieved a memorable blend of heroic nude and raw-boned adolescent. The boy stands in looming profile against a background of water fringed with trees. Both of his hands rest rather awkwardly on his upraised right thigh. His full cheeks and the lonely, black-outlined flap of his left ear give him a raw, vulnerable look.
With thick strokes of paint in orange, Park picks out the boy's penis, the curve of his buttocks and the long athletic stretch of his inner thigh. The color chisels and bulks up form in a rhythmic way that makes sense anatomically and also satisfies the eye's craving for repetition and tension.
Los Angeles artist John Altoon headed in the opposite direction, loosening his polite figurative style into rapturous, doodle-like abstractions. At 25, he painted "Jazz Players" (1950), a composition pieced together from irregular flat shapes in which a pair of black and white saxophone players are contrasted in a rather contrived way (one guy's head lifts up in apparent musical rapture, the other head points downward).
An untitled painting from Altoon's "Ocean Park Series" of 1962 shows how much his style benefited from the "doodle factor." Perched tantalizingly between figuration and abstraction, his linear objects cavort on a flat white background. One ladder-like image suggests a lifeguard's chair, other markings might represent a fish, a passing airplane, surf (skittering mauve and purple dashes). Still other images--explosions and protrusions of knobby forms--are frankly sexual celebrations of the come-ons and bathing suit lures that are inseparable from a summer at the beach.
Park died at 48, of cancer; Altoon also died tragically young (at 43) in 1969. Joan Brown also crammed a lot of fine work into relatively few years of mature output. While she was installing a mosaic obelisk at a museum in India last year, a concrete turret from the floor above collapsed on her head. She was only 52.
Brown was a student of Elmer Bischoff's, another "first-generation" Bay Area Figurative painter who was ultimately more renowned as a teacher than as an artist, although his best work from the 1950s achieved a luscious, gloriously sun-washed vigor. (In the Newport Harbor show, Bischoff, who died earlier this year, is represented by the radiant "Two Figures at the Seashore," of 1957.)
One of only two women (the other was Jay DeFeo, subject of an exhibit at the Laguna Art Museum last year) to be widely recognized in the man's world of Bay Area painting of this era, Brown was just 22 when she painted "Trying to Spear Things" in 1960.