“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.
Nathan Oliveira, Untitled Standing Figure
Oliveira found that he had stronger ties to European painters like Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet, Edvard Munch, and Max Beckman. He earnestly studied Oskar Kokoschka’s paintings of lonely and tormented figures. All of these artists, with their existential view of human beings – “battered, tragic, but enduring” – became his model. He also had the opportunity to study with Max Beckman, whose paintings he admired for their drama, weight and emotional substance. He marveled at Beckman’s ability to transform a three-dimensional figure into a two-dimensional form that exists in two-dimensional space. From Beckman Oliveira also learned about the power of black.
Oliveira’s search was for an expressive relationship between form and space which he eventually found in his signature paintings of solitary and isolated figures bound to their abstracted environment by his unique brushstokes.
For me, Nathan Oliveira, Richard Diebenkorn, and certain other Bay Area Figurative Painters represent a vision, an image and a language I’ m searching for. Things like:
– The joy of working and reworking the picture surface with many layers of paint where each new layer is infused with and colored by previous layers.
– The joy of painting variations on a theme. Oliveira painted endless variations on the theme of a single figure in an abstract space, saying, “Each painting took me to a different place.”
– The power of pure black paint.
– The power of dramatization.
– The expression of melancholy, longing, solitude, contemplation and mystery.
– The search for a unique personal vision and language.
– Combining a recognizable figure with abstract surroundings.
– The use of the figure as a jumping off place for personal discovery and working out formal painting issues.
“Every artist deals with his own sense of reality; this reality is for him to determine, and involves a broad and varied range of expressive symbols. The image of the human figure is the vehicle with which I can most positively relate. My concern for the figure is a formal one, growing out of the problems of painting itself. The implications are unconscious, for I have no desire to illustrate stories.” Nathan Oliveira
To learn more about Nathan Oliveira and his work, I recommend the book Nathan Oliveira by Peter Selz.