Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG), has held his job for 16 years now but has the energy of a man who is just getting started. That bodes well for the institution he guides, which recently entered a new era of possibilities.
Since reopening in December of 2012 following an ambitious 14 year $135 million dollar renovation project that united three buildings into a cohesive whole the YUAG is now ranked as one of the nation’s foremost teaching museums. With 65,000 square feet of exhibition space, 11 curatorial departments and a collection of over 200,000 objects, the gallery is in a position to offer fresh and varied shows from material that hasn’t been seen in concert with an impressive roster of recent donations and acquisitions.
Taking full advantage of the situation — now he can stay up late at night thinking about art instead of construction — Reynolds has been able to assemble and present a show that has a great deal of significance for him personally: an exhibition of some 30 examples of Bay Area figurative art drawn from the gallery’s remarkably deep permanent collection.
Five West Coast Artists showcases works by David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, and Manuel Neri. All five men were part of a key generation of artist/teachers — first- and second-generation members of the Bay Area Figurative movement — whose expressive art and dedication to supporting each other and their students give Five Artists its back-story and aesthetic context.
Reynold’s own background puts him in a unique position: he is deeply and in some cases intimately familiar with the material at hand. Over time, Reynolds had personal contact with all of the artists in the Yale exhibition except for David Park who died of cancer in 1960. That said, Reynolds heard quite a bit about Park during his undergraduate years in the late ’60s at UC Santa Cruz where he served as a studio assistant for Gurdon Woods, a former student and friend of Park’s. “I loved Park’s work,” Reynolds recalls. “I grew up around it.”
While earning his MFA in Sculpture at UC Davis Reynolds gained strong first-hand impressions of Wayne Thiebaud and Manuel Neri — he served as Neri’s teaching assistant — and also came into contact with other important California artists including William Wiley and Robert Arneson. “They cared about us, they cared about their work, and they worked like demons,” Reynolds says of his instructors at Davis. “Those of use lucky enough to have known them profited for the rest of our lives. I wouldn’t be doing anything I’m doing today without them.”
Five West Coast Artists is, among other things, Reynolds’s way of saying “thank you” to his mentors: of “paying it forward.” The exhibition also offers East Coast art-lovers the chance to see key examples of West Coast painting and sculpture by artists that are best known in California. As a man connected to both coasts, Reynolds is in a position to spark some extraordinary connections, comparisons, and reassessments.
“Jock is well known for his encyclopedic knowledge of art and artists,” says writer and art historian Nancy Boas. “His familiarity with the West Coast Postwar art scene uniquely qualifies him to bridge the divide between East and West Coast culture, positioning the artists within the history of American and European art of their time.”
If there is a single artist in the exhibition whose work is overdue for repositioning in the pantheon of American art history it is most certainly David Park (1911–1960). Park was the father figure of the Bay Area figurative movement, which married the vigor and spontaneity of Abstract Expression with representational imagery. His reputation has been on a steady ascent in recent years, partly due to the publication of two splendid books: David Park, Painter: Nothing Held Back — a memoir by the artist’s daughter Helen Park Bigelow — and David Park: A Painter’s Life, a full biography by Nancy Boas. Since her book came out in 2012 Boas has given 15 presentations on both coasts, including one at Yale on May 1. She feels confident that her biography of Park — in concert with Helen Park Bigelow’s memoir — has “raised awareness and understanding of the painter’s life and work.”
On the back cover of Boas’s book is an image of “The Model,” a 1959 Park oil that is the centerpiece of Five West Coast Artists, and also a recent YUAG acquisition. “It is one of the last sparks off Park’s easel before he switched to doing works on paper during his illness,” Reynolds notes. “It is a key purchase for Yale.”
Lawrence Eisner, whose mother Anita was the original purchaser of the painting is very happy to see the painting on display in New Haven:
“The Model” is where she is supposed to be — in a great museum and with a director who clearly knows the value of what he was able to acquire.
Park’s influence on his younger peer Richard Diebenkorn is readily apparent in the bold, expressive brushwork of Diebenkorn’s “Girl with Cups,” which was recently on view in both San Francisco and Palm Springs as part of the exhibition Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–1966. Diebenkorn is the most widely recognized artist represented in the Yale show, but it his later Ocean Park abstractions that have drawn the most national and international attention. The early works that first brought Diebenkorn critical praise — both abstractions and representational works — still need to be seen on the East Coast in the context of other postwar art. In his end of the year column for 2013, Kenneth Baker, the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, opined— perhaps correctly — that the only downside to the “Berkeley Years,” which did not travel outside of California, “was inadvertently to re-provincialize a cosmopolitan artist.”
Elmer Bischoff, another first generation Bay Area Figurative artist is represented by his “Cityscape” of 1965. It plays confident brushwork against the bland rigor of urban architecture, more than proving the point that Richard Diebenkorn’s ideas about painterly schematizing emanated from a shared set of explorations. The presence of a major Bischoff adds substantially to the conversation that Reynolds hopes the show will generate.
Wayne Thiebaud and Manuel Neri, the artists who Jock Reynolds studied with at Davis are both living, working legends. It obviously gives him special pleasure to show both of their work: Reynolds even wrote the exhibition tags for some their work and included a few favorite anecdotes. The first pep talk that Thiebaud gave to his new grad students is forever etched in Reynold’s memory:
“’We can’t teach you to become an artist but we can work alongside you.’ Thiebaud told us, ‘But the one thing I really need to tell you is how to live cheaply and well and where to buy the best bread and cheese and olives.’ Then he had us get out a piece of paper and a pencil and he rattled off the best places to get prosciutto and cheese. And then about halfway through the talk I realized: he is talking about his subject matter. It was a fantastic talk!”
Manuel Neri, who is represented by two painter plaster figures in the Yale show, made an enormous impression on Reynolds as well.
“He had such an amazing work ethic,” Reynolds recalls. “Manuel would go on wild work jags, working nonstop for one or even two weeks. Then he would come into class all cleaned up wearing Italian loafers and linen pants and holding a double espresso. I’ll never forget the show he did at 80 Langton Street called ‘The Remaking of Mary Julia: Sculpture in Progress.’ He worked on seven plaster figures for an entire week, and then at the end of seven days all the tools and chips were all left and he just walked out. It was just unbelievably beautiful.”
Not surprisingly, Five West Coast Artists is attracting the attention and praise of artists who are charmed by the vigor and freshness of the works presented. “The exhibit had paintings I have never seen before,” says New York painter Peri Schwartz. “There was a stunning Elmer Bischoff painting and a very powerful David Park: ‘The Model.’ Seeing the works of Bay Area artists together gave me an understanding of how they influenced each other.”
Painter Jenny Nelson reports that she reacted strongly to the physical presence of the paintings in the show: “I felt the excitement in the room and responded strongly to the painterly drawing in works like Park’s ‘The Model,’ and Diebenkorn’s ‘Girls with Cups.’ These works feel like they could have been created yesterday.”
Jock Reynolds has more plans to show Postwar California art and to mix them up with East Coast work: in fact he also plans to mix ceramics with painting and sculpture. Next year he is planning a show at Yale that will bring together work by California ceramicists including Peter Voulkos, John Mason, and Ken Price and set their work in the context of paintings by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Nathan Oliveira. Reynolds says he is following in the footsteps of the former director of the Hirshhorn Museum, James Demetrion, who believed in “showing the best works from across the country and beyond … ”
Reynolds also hopes to bring more key California works into the Yale Gallery collection: if you know of a major, early Joan Brown painting that might be for sale, be sure to drop him a line.
Five West Coast Artists continues at the Yale University Art Gallery (1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut) until July 13.