David Park’s Best Year Ever

Four People Drinking a Toast, ca. 1937

I recently visited the Modern Museum of Fort Worth which is showing David Park’s work from the 1930’s through 1950’s. Since he’s known as a figurative painter, I was very interested in seeing more of his work.

Now for the full disclosure: I do not appreciate most of David Park’s abstracted figurative work, especially those he did in later life.  I’m a portrait and figural painter with a completely different aesthetic. It seems to me that abstract expressionism may be able to be applied successfully to the figure and portrait, but I don’t like how Mr. Park applied it.

However, there are some wonderful paintings here, and all the best are from 1937. This show is definitely worth the trip to Fort Worth.

In the first painting above, Four People Drinking a Toast, Park shows an enigmatic foursome crowded around a small table, tightly squeezed and cropped into the picture plane.  It’s easy to imagine the rest of the cramped apartment and speculate on the underlying intimacy between the four people.  There is so much mystery here. I wonder why the woman in yellow is holding the fancy vase, rather than another goblet of wine.  Is she showing off a new purchase?  Perhaps it’s a valued heirloom.  Maybe it adds some comic relief or just necessary to complete the complicated composition. I love it when artists show off and I think that’s a bit of what’s going on here. Regardless, the seriousness of the group and their intensely focused gazes make for a wonderful and contemplative piece. 

Dancing Couples, ca. 1937

At some point, hopefully, each of us will have a really great year. It will be a stretch of time when everything comes together, we’re at the top of our game, and our best work is done. Perhaps it will be the culmination of long years of study and practice. Then the fates coalesce for a short time. Once you live through a period like that and achieve success at that level, the later years may be hard to accept. Lightning in a bottle is hard to conjure up a second time.

This second work, Dancing Couples, portrays the figures tightly entwined.  Once again maximum use of the picture plane is made and the space is tight. 

Self-Portrait Painting His Wife, ca. 1937

This last painting also has a lot going on in a small space.  We see the loveliness captured in his wife’s evocative pose.  And on the inner canvas, we get a glimpse of where his work will take him a few years down the road.  It’s unfinished certainly, but it’s lacking in depth and emotion. Perhaps it’s foreshadowing something of the path he will take in the future.

I’m interested in art that portrays and speaks to the human condition. There is much in these 1937 paintings that make me think the artist and his models have a connection and an interest in each other. They know each other intensely and there are bonds between them that will last. The later work, although vigorous in its brushstroke and color, loses that connection between artist and subject, and therefore me.

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