Arts & Theater

Art review: ‘Back to Life’ at Crocker Art Museum

“Reclining Male Nude” by William Theophilus Brown is part of “Back to Life.”
“Reclining Male Nude” by William Theophilus Brown is part of “Back to Life.” Copyright by Estate of William Theophilus Brown

In recent years, life drawing, in which artists work from a live model either nude or clothed, has experienced a renaissance across the country. In the Sacramento-Davis area numerous weekly sessions take place in addition to classes at local community colleges and universities.

In the late 1940s when Abstract Expressionism held sway on both coasts, such drawing sessions were a rarity. All that would change when in 1949 David Park destroyed all of his non-objective paintings, abandoning pure abstraction with his ground-breaking 1950 painting “Kids on Bikes,” which was essentially an abstract painting with figurative elements: two boys and their bicycles.

The departure shocked his peers, including Richard Diebenkorn, who opined, “David has lost his mind.” Soon, however, Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff followed suit and a radical new West Coast style – Bay Area Figuration – took off.

In 1959 Park was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and in the 10 weeks before his death, though in intense pain, he painted more than 100 vividly colored, spontaneous, small gouaches. One of them, “Back of Nude,” 1960, is on view in “Back to Life: Bay Area Figurative Drawings” at the Crocker Art Museum.

In 1953, Park, Diebenkorn and Bischoff started meeting weekly to draw live models, bringing to paper the same lively marks and loose style of their figurative paintings. Building on Park’s synthesis of Abstract Expressionism and figurative subjects, they worked from the live model with pen or pencil in hand, addressing the difficult task of turning the human figure into lines, planes and shadows. The resulting works were some of the strongest figure drawings made in the 20th century, among them Bischoff’s sensual, affectionate charcoal, brush and wash drawing of two nudes reclining together and Diebenkorn’s bold, vigorous, spatially rooted drawing of what are probably the same two nudes.

By 1956 artists such as James Weeks, Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown regularly attended the evening sessions, which hopped to various studios around the Bay Area. In 1959 after Park became ill, Frank Lobdell joined the group that inspired younger artists such as Joan Brown, William H. Brown and Manuel Neri. Soon artists like Gordon Cook, Nathan Oliveira and Wayne Thiebaud began participating in group life-drawing sessions.

Thiebaud, Brown and Cook, who drew together for many years, are represented by strong drawings ranging from Thiebaud’s luminous back view of a female nude in watercolor to Brown’s ink wash image of a male nude kneeling on the floor as artists draw him.

Weeks offers a psychologically compelling drawing of a seated woman in a hat and coat while Wonner gives us a classical back view of a standing male nude with his hand on a stool. Oliveira is represented by an impassioned, expressionistic, richly colored female nude who seems to emerge from a dream.

Moving to a younger generation, the show includes Joan Brown’s urgently drawn, bold female nude on a large piece of roughed-up, collaged paper that exemplifies her early Bay Area Figurative style. Nearby is a radiant, gestural drawing in orange and rosy tones of a seated female nude by Manuel Neri who was at one time married to Joan Brown.

My choice for the strongest work in the show is Bischoff’s untitled 1962 ink wash and charcoal drawing of a studio interior with a man at a table drawing a female nude, most of whose body is outside the picture plane.

It’s particularly nice to have this show of contemporary figurative art on view at the same time as the historic master drawings in the Crocker’s “The Age of Albrecht Dürer: German Drawings from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris.” You won’t want to miss the opportunity to see two such fine drawing shows during the holidays.

Back to Life: Bay Area Figurative Drawings

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento

When: Through May 1, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday

Cost: $5-$10, children 6 and under are free. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”

Information: 916-808-7000,