In the last room of a retrospective, you always think of death. These two exhibitions — Claude Monet and David Park, in adjacent museums in Fort Worth — were no exception, but it was as a duet that the two shows sung me the saddest requiem.
Both artists completed their most ambitious and monumental work near the end of their lives. The shows’ penultimate rooms showcase this ambition, plunging me into oceanic visions: Monet’s lake-sized processions of lilies and Park’s brushstroke-sculpted, nearly life-size bathers.
Then, in the last rooms, the works shrink to painfully modest proportions — as if to bow before the exit, to stoop before the final gate.
Park, diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1959, was forced to abandon oil paints in favor of gouache (a type of opaque watercolor). In this humble medium, he did what he had always done: painted from memory. The musician in a crimson vibration of gladness. The quiet moment with a cup of coffee. The proud mother raising her child towards the distant future. One day and painting at a time, he conjured each of his favorite things in miniature — then let them go.
When cancer takes his right hand, he paints with his left.
In his garden at Giverny, Monet also did what he had always done: painted what was in front of him. In other words, his beloved garden… and death. The roses framing a lightwards tunnel. The aged weeping willow which may have been a self-portrait. The Japanese bridge.
Once upon a time, he had painted it without asking where it led.
Now, he paints it as he sees it: with blind, visionary eyes. (Before his last cataract operation, he has 10% vision left in his better eye.) It’s impossible to tell which of the colors are choices and which — confusions.
I can only see the bridge — with painful clarity — from the other side of the room. From close up, it’s a burst of blindness, mingling all the wrong colors of the rainbow into a veil of light. I don’t know if I understand it. I don’t know if it’s any good.
It doesn’t make sense from close up. Maybe that’s the point.
David Park is perhaps best-known for… throwing a carload of his paintings into the dump. Until then, he had been working in the cutting-edge style of abstract expressionism — a well-respected artist in a community of like-minded peers. Then, one day around 1950, he threw it all out. From now on, he would paint the human figure.
Claude Monet was a rule-breaker too. We all know about his first offense against artistic fashion: that time he and his friends called themselves Impressionists and changed the course of art history. The second time, I believe, came with his waterlilies.
He started planting these transcendental gardens at the time of Paul Klee’s abstraction, Oskar Kokoschka’s expressionism, and Duchamp’s found-object art. The art world had moved on from impressionism, and the new rule-breakers whispered that the over 70-year-old father of modern painting was going senile. He had lived too long for his own good.
By Park’s time, even to make it to 49 was to live too long. He had tried to keep up with the trends — social realism, cubism, abstract expressionism — until he could stand it no more. There was something he had abandoned in his early figurative work, a kind of tenderness towards humanity, which he had never allowed to mature to its full potential. That was what called out to him, brought him first to the dump, then to masterpieces.
Park’s first post-abstraction paintings delight in unusual perspectives. In Jazz Band, we’re peering over the shoulder of the trombonist, almost breathing down his neck. Such themes recur: people seen from behind, with foreshortened profiles, elongated hands, giant ears. Another artist could have used such distortions to grotesque, violent ends, but these works radiate compassion and generosity.
No one can see the back of their own neck. And yet these images give the unmistakable impression of being painted from their subject’s perspective. Park peers over people’s shoulders to see the world from where they’re standing . He even notices the way we always enter into our own view of things.
To be seen from behind is to be vulnerable. The painter wields considerable power over his subject — but Park never uses that power. Instead, like a mother’s kiss on the nape, these paintings return us to ourselves.
The convention of the frame allows a classical portrait to give full weight to its subject’s inner life. The world is cropped away, the background grayed out or reduced to a prop to the psychological drama.
Park’s paintings zoom out, remove the cropping, and place their subjects back in their environment. Somehow, this only heightens the psychology. The subject of Girl at a Fence is locked in a small corner of the painting. Measured by area, the work’s subject isn’t the girl, only the flowers and fence. And that is the subject— flowers and fence as contents of her vision.
Though we remain on the other side, the painting seems on the verge of hoisting us over that fence.
Two Boys Walking is a portrait of the foreground boy — but it needs the second, schematic figure for its power. It’s a painting about the distances between people and the possibility of closeness; about the way our thoughts cloud the space around us, the way we always inhabit our own foregrounds.
This is the way we walk through life: equal parts within the world and set apart from it.
Park’s Bathers series marries his love for humanity with the juiciest brushstrokes of abstract expressionism. The series shares a mixed blessing with Monet’s Water Lilies: with their striking colors and pleasing subject matter, these paintings are eminently photogenic — and completely fail to resemble their photographs.
It’s a simple matter of scale. These works are so huge that to view them is to inhabit them. This is the culmination of Park’s studies of points of view.
They’re so huge that they present the human figure, the ordinary person standing on an ordinary beach, as something marvelous and grand. But they’re not that huge. Even the largest figures aren’t quite life-size — as if to say: you are even grander than this.
The other thing photographs never quite capture is the texture of the paint. And the Bathers unleash the raw power of the brushstroke more than even the best abstract-expressionist works. How can a brushstroke be the muscle of the leg, the swing of the arm — and more purely paint than if it were just itself?
Maybe a brushstroke is always something human: the swing of the painter’s arm, the power of the hand.
In Two Bathers (1958), the intimacy of a woman doing up her hair is perfectly balanced against the exuberance of a paint-tube’s worth of white foam.
What I love most about this painting is the incongruous, almost childish hand of the woman on the right. What is she doing? Pointing at the invisible sunset? Ordering it to stop?
Forget the poetics: she’s simply looking to the left, waving at someone we can’t see.
Then, the works shrink…
The longer oar plunges vertically into the colorful depths. The shorter one is a skywards dash. In this type of boat, you face away from the direction of motion. Occasionally, like in this painting, you cast a quick glance over your shoulder.
For the most part, though, you plumb the depths of the past for the happiest colors. It’s astonishing how much joy waits for you there. A joy which catches in your throat, yes, but no less joyful for that.
Some of these gouaches — like a group of colorful, cartoonish faces — are so simple a child could have done them — but that’s precisely the source of their power.
Where he had arrived, there was no more striving for greatness or originality. There was only authenticity.
Painting because, as Park said himself, it made him feel more alive.
“So, I guess what I want to tell you also is I’m not afraid — admitted, I am frustrated that I haven’t done the work I’d hoped to — but I might feel that anyhow if I lived to be ninety,” Park wrote to his father three months before his death.
What was that hoped-for work? It’s hard for me to image anything that would surpass Park’s astonishing Bathers. But when 50-year-old Monet was making his Rouen Cathedrals, could anyone have dreamed of the Water Lilies? The artist never knows how far he can go until he gets there.
In the end, Park and Monet — two chain smokers and users of toxic lead-based paint — were both cut down by the same disease: lung cancer. It’s just that Monet’s fate was almost twice as slow as Park’s — slow enough that he could create, perhaps, the greatest artworks of all time.
The biggest Waterlilies in the exhibition strike me dumb, bring me to my knees. Flowers, water, paint, mist — I can’t say anything to do it justice. This is a painting to live for. Can there be anything better?
If Park had lived longer, maybe there could have been.
Of course, that’s not Park’s real tragedy. The real tragedy is the same as that of anybody’s premature death: not that he wouldn’t get to be the next Monet, but simply that he wouldn’t get to be.
Park was a very brave man. Brave when, after his diagnosis, he told his doctor “I’m going to go home and paint.” Brave when (as a friend recounts), during the last weeks of his illness, he would wake to cry and cry. Brave when he continued his letter to his father:
“I feel terribly sentimental at times — so anxious to have people know how much I love them. Maybe that’s o.k.”
The last room of a retrospective always distorts your perceptions. The Bathers are not David Park’s Waterlilies: when he made them, he couldn’t have known that they would be his final masterpieces. And Monet, who knew he was reaching his end, had a full 10 years to devote to the Waterlilies—as much time as Park’s entire post-abstract-expressionism career!
Monet’s bridges and weeping willows weren’t Park’s gouaches either: Monet was touching up his Waterlilies in parallel, up to his death. And these
“last” works were executed during a period of six years — a far cry from Park’s four months.
When Park made Two Bathers, he didn’t know about the coming sunset; he was only waving at those near him. Two years later, did he see his old painting with different eyes?
What did our ancestors mean when they left handprints on the walls of caves? We float through time; we mumble, we gesticulate, we shout. What do our gestures mean?
The view from the final room is also valid.¹
 My primary source for biographical details (including all the quotes) was Nancy Boas’s book David Park: A Painter’s Life.
Monet: the Late Years was on view at the Kimbell Art Museum between June 16 and Sept 15, 2019; David Park: A Retrospective was shown at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth between June 2nd and September 22, 2019, and will reopen at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on April 11, 2020 (running through September 7, 2020).
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