"…attempting to get your ideas out may mean standing firmly on your own convictions regardless of how it offends the established tastes"—David Park
(D. Park quoted in C. A. Jones, Bay Area figurative Art: 1950-1965, Berkeley, 1989, p. 15).
A strikingly intimate example of David Park’s mature period, Boy with Flute was painted at the height of the artist’s creative output and exhibits a true command of the abstract figuration for which he is known. Making a conscious break from Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s, Park solidified himself as a leader of the Bay Area Figurative School when he traded the thickly-wrought surfaces and nonrepresentational subjects of his East Coast contemporaries for brooding figures and abstracted human forms. Art historian Richard Armstrong notes, "In abandoning abstraction he retained a gestural style: he spent the next ten years propelled by a desire to incorporate the freedom of gestural painting into incontestably figurative work" (quoted in R. Armstrong, David Park, exh.cat Whitney Museum of Art, 1988, p. 11). Completed at the apex of Park’s career, and only one year before his untimely death, Boy with Flute is a bold composition that marries the artist’s adept use of light and shadow with his mastery of gestural figuration.
The titular flutist commands much of the viewer’s attention as he displays the gleaming instrument between his expressively tapered fingers. The figure’s dark skin contrasts sharply with the light blue and aquamarine of his clothing, but sinks readily into the forest green of the composition’s background. Within the more prevalent color fields, streaks of black, white, red, blue, and even yellow push and compete to be noticed. The flute itself is a dash of hot white surrounded by silvery blue and a murky red that inevitably fades to a velvety mauve. Not content with mere representation, Park approaches his subjects with the freedom of the gestural painting of the preceding decades and expertly combines this painterly gusto with relatable subjects and palpable emotion. In his later years, the artist started to focus more on the bust portrait rather than depicting the whole figure in space. This focus on the face and shoulders of the subject produced an intimate atmosphere while also serving to flatten the space of the image.
Working alongside contemporaries Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, Park effectively translated the experimentation and zeal of Abstract Expressionism to more recognizable everyday subjects. Interested in depicting the world that he knew, his canvases were frequently influenced by his surroundings and the people he came into contact with. However, by 1956 Park had "completed his move from ordinary and locatable subjects to figurative symbols that can allude to universal conditions...Park had finally gained sufficient faith in the representational powers of his imagery to begin incorporating gestural abstraction as an almost equal force in his work" (R. Armstrong, David Park, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1988, p.39). This interest in essentially combining his subject with its surroundings exhibits passing similarities to the figurative works of Willem de Kooning. However, whereas de Kooning’s Women series of the early 1950s pulses with a wild energy, Park’s tableaus are contemplative as they seep into the lush shadows of his palette. Although his brushstrokes are confident and bold, the scenes themselves give way to a quiet meditation rather than a burst of machismo and turmoil.
Boy with Flute addresses a theme central to both Park’s work and life: music. For an artist who worked in near solitude, listening to and playing music was a vital compliment to his studio practice. "I like to play Bach, Mozart and am quite willing to say that I render these superbly as long as no one is around to listen,” Park once remarked, “And I play jazz with absolutely no competence and considerable energy with a group of amateurs who—fortunately for the ‘band’—I play quite well. I've grown to prefer it to playing serious music—it’s a better antidote to the solitary life of painting. It has helped me in painting to be extravagant with paint" (H. P. Bigelow, David Park, Painter: Nothing Held Back, Manchester, 2009, p. 68). By bringing the energy of live performance into his compositions, Park was able to imbue motion and visual intrigue into canvases like Boy with Flute or The Concert of 1954. Depicting musicians lost in their music or musing upon their instruments, Park was able to unlock the psyche of the professional jazz players he knew in compositions that favor introspection or exhibition.
Boy with Flute is a prime instance of Park’s gradual progression into a looser handling of paint and more gestural compositions. Though he never reverted to pure abstraction, his later works embraced a more vigorous construction of form and an almost paradoxical flattening of space. While employing color and light to give shape to his figures, at the same time the artist brought the background forward until it merged nearly seamlessly with the sitter. Never one to give in to the current trends, Park once stated that "attempting to get your ideas out may mean standing firmly on your own convictions regardless of how it offends the established tastes" (D. Park quoted in C. A. Jones, Bay Area figurative Art: 1950-1965, Berkeley, 1989, p. 15). By aligning himself stylistically with the Abstract Expressionists but thoroughly distancing his work from their non-representative subject matter and bravado, David Park proved unequivocally that figuration could return to American painting and still remain both relevant and fresh.