An exhibit opening this Friday at the Yale University Art Gallery will bring together the works of five prominent Bay Area School artists.
“Five West Coast Artists” will showcase pieces by Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Manuel Neri and David Park, including paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, many from the Gallery’s own holdings. All five were part of the movement that emerged from studios and art schools in the greater San Francisco area in the mid-20th century, and were inspired by elements of the Abstract Expressionist movement pioneered by American artists on the opposite coast in the 1940s.
“[This exhibition is] great fun for me, personally, because I knew all of these artists and their work,” Reynolds said. “Coming from California and having studied with these artists as teachers, I was surprised and eager to see how much California artwork was actually in the YUAG collection. We’re incredibly lucky to have what we have here … our holdings are right up there with MoMA and the Whitney [Museum] in terms of these artists.”
Though this particular group of California artists borrowed elements from the Abstract Expressionists, part of what made them unique was their ability to remain independent from the movement’s potentially domineering influence, explained YUAG director Jock Reynolds, who curated the exhibition. For instance, Bay Area School artists adopted Abstract Expressionism’s brushwork but not its exclusive focus on abstraction, Reynolds noted, adding that the Bay Area School artists’ focus on the human figure also differentiates them from their East Coast counterparts.
Among the pieces on view are a handful of Diebenkorn’s rich oils, both figurative and abstract. The paintings are rendered in vibrant colors Reynolds described as reminiscent of French artist Henri Matisse’s Mediterranean work. They also nod to one of the Bay Area artists’ major sources of inspiration — the bold, broad brushstrokes characteristic of the Abstract Expressionists, Reynolds said.
The exhibit also features a pair of Neri’s sculptures — one plaster, one bronze. Both are highly textured and splashed with swaths of bright pigment. Wall text written by Reynolds comments on his personal interactions with the sculptor at the University of California, Davis; he describes watching the artist in his studio, an old church in the seaside town of Benicia, Calif., working “feverish[ly] … [to] bring the figure to life in the immediate medium of plaster.”
Another room is dedicated to the works of a second artist Reynolds interacted with while at U.C. Davis: Wayne Thiebaud. Lining the walls are Thiebaud’s depictions of drink syrup dispensers, candy sticks and neatly scooped ice cream cones. The colorful array is accompanied by Reynolds’s blurb discussing his first graduate experience with the painter, who gave his students tips on where to find Sacramento’s best bakeries, delis and salami-sellers. Though they did not realize it at the time, Reynolds continued, by sharing these seemingly banal pieces of advice Thiebaud was also giving profound insight into his work.
In addition to his better-known works, Thiebaud also produced equally notable pieces that focus on natural and architectural subjects. “Five West Coast Artists” has three such pieces on display, several of which were completed as recently as 2011.
Joellen Adae, who works in the Gallery’s Exhibitions, Programming, and Education department and is herself a painter, pointed to the “conversations” between pieces of art that she thinks take place within the exhibit.
Reynolds said he hopes that visitors will pay particular attention to the way all five artists employ various painterly techniques.
“Part of what I want [them] to do is look at how colors work, how shapes work, the way artists compose things, how they paint … it’s really interesting in this exhibition,” he said.
“Five West Coast Artists” will be on view from March 28 to July 13.