In 1953, the young painters David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn began meeting weekly in a Berkeley studio to draw from live models. In works on paper, they imbued the human form with the charged-emotion newly derived from the bold and swift marks of gestural Abstract Expressionism that emerged in their paintings of figures, still lifes, and landscapes. This return to humanist tradition was revolutionary in an era that celebrated subjective emotional experience, especially in contemporary abstraction. The expressive rendering of subject matter forged in Northern California became known as Bay Area Figuration, and for the first time, the vanguard of American painting was here, rather than New York.
The drawing sessions begun by this circle of intimates continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s, widening to include artists such as James Weeks, William Theophilius Brown, Paul Wonner, and later, Frank Lobdell, Nathan Oliveira, and Manuel Neri. Their regard for the study of the human figure is evident in this selection of more than 30 drawings, including major gifts from the estate of John S. Knudsen. Additional works by Joan Brown and Wayne Thiebaud highlight the growing influence of Californian artists in these decades. In plays of light and dark, succinct line work, and attention to the emotional states of sitters, the qualities that make Bay Area Figuration so enduringly compelling are examined.