“Visual art is a vehicle for creating worlds that are non-existent.” Nathan Oliveira
I recently learned that one of my favorite contemporary artists, Nathan Oliveira, passed away in November. I was first drawn to Oliveira’s work because he is often associated with the Bay Area Figurative Painters, an art movement that has greatly impacted my work and thinking. Oliveira attended the California College of Arts and Crafts at the same time that David Park, Elmer Bishoff, and Richard Diebenkorn were teaching at the California School of Fine arts in San Francisco. At that time, Abstract Expressionism was the prevailing art movement and Park, Bishoff, and Diebenkorn were respected abstract expressionist painters. But in 1950, David Park painted Rehearsal, a representational painting of members of the school’s jazz band. Both Park and Bishoff had come to feel that abstraction had become formulaic and little more than “paint for paint’s sake.” Diebenkorn also began to question his own abstract style and slowly moved to more realistic landscapes and figure paintings. Thus began an art movement called the Bay Area Figurative Painters.
Oliveira was pleased when he was asked to join Park, Bishoff, Diebenkorn and other Bay Area artists who met regularly to draw from the model. However, he soon realized that his response to the model differed greatly from the rest of the group. For Diebenkorn, the figure primarily functioned as a jumping off place to focus on his chief concerns, which were light, space and color. Indeed, the Bay Area Figurative Painters as a whole were indebted to Impressionism in the way they organized their compositions and in their use of light. But light and Impressionism were not Oliveira’s agenda. His was a more emotional and sensual response to the model. Oliveira said, “Figures must have their own light, it wasn’t light that struck the figure in a certain way – the light itself, the luminosity – was in the figure. It emanated from the paint itself.” He left the drawing group after a short period of time and never considered himself to part of the Bay Area Figurative Painters.