The Bay Area School Paintings, Thomas Williams Fine Art, London – review

Richard Diebenkorn said he did not become a painter in order to be an Abstract Expressionist; rather he became an Abstract Expressionist to be a painter. Questions of abstract or figurative painting inspired fanatical positioning in New York in the mid-20th century, but Diebenkorn already perceived a continuum. His oeuvre shifts between the two – the range here includes the “Albuquerque” abstractions, a still life, “Folding Chair”, and stunning nudes in brush and black ink – but all his works share intricate architectonic structures, shimmering veils of light, soft colour and a history of painterly indecision and struggle written into sensuous, resolved surfaces.

If a Diebenkorn evokes the wide open landscapes of the artist’s California home, then distance from New York conferred psychological space. That is the argument behind Thomas Williams’ intriguing excavation of the 1940s-60s Bay Area artists, who grappled with abstraction and then abandoned it. (David Parks drove all his abstract canvases to the Berkeley municipal dump in 1950.) Yet they used its freedoms to galvanise figurative painting. Few, apart from Diebenkorn, are well known, and this show is a fine introduction: John Grillo’s mosaic and geometric compositions; lyrical gestural abstractions by James Budd Dixon and Ernest Briggs; Parks’ renderings of the human form as broad swaths of light and colour; textural pencil/wash nudes by Frank Lobdell; Elmer Bischoff’s figures isolated in their environment such as “Man and Lavender Sky”, indebted to Edvard Munch.

An excellent catalogue recounts the influences: European painter/teacher Hans Hofmann; West Coast visits from Rothko and Clyfford Still; and Sarah Stein’s Matisse collection. (Even when I saw this in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2011, the disjunction between Ecole de Paris modernism and what Matisse called “your splendid California” was startling; how much more so in the 1940s.) It also recounts the heroic dedication by long-ignored artists who were often broke. Bischoff worked as a truck driver and Diebenkorn had enrolled as a taxi driver when a university fellowship saved him.

May 15-June 22,

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