I am not from the Bay Area. I’ve only been to the West Coast twice, and I am the furthest thing from your typical California native, the kind of person who projects their love for California onto every place they visit. And yet, walking into the airy space on the top floor of the Yale University Art Gallery, I already felt as if I had taken a pleasant stroll from New Haven into a quiet Santa Monica neighborhood. A pale sunlight filtered through the white ceiling panes and onto the canvas of Richard Dienbenkorn’s “Ocean Park No. 24” — a bird’s-eye-view landscape of cayenne, hemlock and placid blue — evocative of the environmental and beat poetry of mid-century San Francisco and the cool and ballad-like melodies of West Coast Jazz.
“Five West Coast Artists,” organized by YUAG Director Jock Reynolds, features Richard Diebenkorn’s work alongside that of Wayne Thiebaud, Elmer Bischoff, Manuel Neri and David Park. All five were part of the Bay Area figurative movement that emerged from studios and art schools in the greater San Francisco area in the mid-20th century. Inspired by the abstract expressionists of the postwar 1940s, the Bay Area movement integrated trends in stylistic abstraction with their own unique emphasis on the portrayal of real, tangible objects.
Diebenkorn’s “Girl with Cups” reveals most clearly this melding of two ideas — figuration and abstraction — into a new aesthetic form. Bold, broad brushstrokes, for example, are characteristic of abstract expressionism, and here the paint is tangible, buttery almost, applied with a force that lingers through each stroke. The piece’s subject matter, however, is concrete. Unlike standing in front of a Pollock piece, I get a narrative: a girl, standing by a table, pouring coffee into three cups. At the same time, that narrative is ambiguous enough so that Diebekorn presents not a specific girl, but a feeling. You don’t feel like you are intruding into someone’s life, because there is not enough information to enter the scene fully. Working with two traditions, Diebekorn fuses impression and reality.
Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings do not depict landscape or human figures, but candy sticks, frosted cakes and trays of herring; still, they also achieve a unity of object and feeling. “Drink Syrups,” for example, a painting of three drink syrup dispensers in a row, uses fine lines, heavy pigments and a palette of vivid blues and reds and greens. Looking at the painting, I thought about what it felt like to walk into a candy store as a kid — that pleasure that came from holding a small, colorful object in the palm of my hand, a pleasure that adults simply could not grasp. In contrast to Diebenkorn, the feeling comes not so much from lack of information, but from excess of it. The precise detail — and the pastel-colored cheeriness — of Thiebaud’s paintings, evokes an aura of nostalgia, of melancholy and of longing.
The West Coast artists bring together another set of seemingly disparate ideas — the urban and natural worlds. In my experience with literature, the city is usually a site of degradation and claustrophobia (think Zola’s Paris and Eliot’s London), and the natural landscape is divine and solitary, a retreat from the dim urban “cloisters” (think Wordsworth and basically all the Romantics). Elmer’s Bischoff’s oil painting “Cityscape” seems to challenge everything that I have learned in English 126. The painting shows an urban skyline from the perspective of a balcony. With soft pastel blues and greens and pinks, Bischoff endows the city with the alleged restorative and meditative qualities of the natural landscape. If it were not for the straight lines of the balcony, and the title of the painting itself, I would’ve thought I were loafing around in 19th century Tintern Abbey, not huddled in the midst of skyscrapers.
Leaving the exhibition, I am comforted by the fact that, in the midst of the constant hubbub of Yale and New Haven, on the fourth floor of the YUAG there is a quiet slice of a solitude, a calm almost Wordsworthian West Coast.