Exhibition Review: Five West Coast Artists

Diebenkorn, Ocean Park No. 24

Five West Coast Artists: Bischoff, Diebenkorn, Neri, Park, and Thiebaud is currently on display in the Yale University Art Gallery through July 13, 2014. ­­­The show exhibits both pieces from the collection as well as several new acquisitions, including David Park’s The Model (1959). Notably, each of these artists was also a teacher during his career and exercised considerable influence over the following generation of West Coast artists. The wall text is in rich cobalt and deep golden yellow- colors that reference the California universities where these artists taught.

Upon entering exhibition space, Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park No. 24 is immediately visible. This work, from his eponymous series, embodies the conceptual basis of the show. All of the pieces included in the show are are considered part of the Bay Area Figuration movement of the 1960s, wherein West Coast artist applied the styles and techniques of Abstract Expressionism to figurative forms of representation. These extremely gestural works feature bold compositions and investigative use of the paint medium.  However each of these artists rejected abstraction in favor of recognizable, often mundane, subject matter drawn from everyday life. Diebenkorn’s, Ocean Park is a paragon of this movement.  His piece depicts a dynamic arrangement of different geometric color fields that is reminiscent of Malevich and Mondrian’s geometric-abstraction. However, Diebenkorn’s work is completely based on observation: his used both aerial photography and beachfront architecture as source material. His entire composition is enlivened by his use of expressive gestural marks and attention to color relationships. While innovative, his work shows a strong connection to the work of Clyfford Stills and Willem de Kooning. This pieces is shown in conjunction with seven other Diebenkorn prints of expressive geometric forms.

This room opens onto a large gallery space that contains works two figurative sculptures by Maunelle Neri, and well as works by Elmer Bischoff, Diebenkorn, and Park. These sculptures show the same gestural brevity as the surrounding paintings realized in three-dimensional form. Neri took an explorative approach the medium: working quickly, while the plaster was damp, he used a variety of tools and materials to give his work texture and expression. On the walls are four large paintings by Bischoff, Diebenkorn, and Park that depict a female figure. Park’s The Model and Bischoff’s Woman Bathing strongly reference the art historical tradition of painting the female nude. Bischoff’s piece shows a woman bathing alone in a river and is extremely evocative of French Naturalist paintings. Park’s work is extremely self-referential as it shows a woman posed next an easel carrying her image. This piece points to the deliberate use of observation by not only including a figure, but also a painting of that figure. The juxtaposition of Bischoff’s Cityscape against Diebenkorn’s Girl with Three Coffee Cups emphasizes their differences. While both works rely heavily on geometry and use solid color fields that evoke Matisse’s paints of Collioure, each artist’s treatment of paint is very different. Their subtleties becomes clear through their proximity. While Bischoff scumbles layers of opaque paint with pops of saturated color, Diebenkorn’s expressive brushstrokes are extremely visible because of translucency of his paint. On two walls of this space hang several small works by Diebenkorn. That one wall of the space are several small print and paintings by it Robert Diebenkorn.  These works depict figures in various states of repose and three of them incorporate cups.

The final room contains works by Wayne Thiebaud that span a major portion of his career. Two walls display prints and paintings of classic Thiebaud the subject matter: ice cream, cakes, syrups, and candies. These works, particularly Ice Cream Cone, typify Thiebaud’s style: thick, tactile paint and bright, saturated colors. The shadows behind the cones indicated a singular, bright light source and are painted with a rich ultramarine. Around the edge of the table and the cones moments of Thiebaud’s hyper saturated under-painting become visible. These lines of color active the image through their richness. Most notable is Thiebaud’s impasto style, which leaves his bold strokes visible even from a distance. This tackle treatment of the medium seems appropriate for such a luscious subject, as the paint appears as creamy as ice cream. On the other walls, hang landscape prints and an etching of a single piece of cake in an architecturally idealized display case.

Overall the exhibition was an exciting demonstration of the manner in which West Coast artist of the 1960s applied the expressive gestures and bold compositions of the Abstract Expressionists to figurative subject matter. The works were arranged into uncomplicated groupings of landscapes, figures, and objects. This viewer’s only critique is that while with works of Bischoff, Diebenkorn, Neri, and Park were integrated in the largest gallery space, Thiebaud’s work was allocated to a separate room and did not interact with the works of the other artists to the same extent.

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