Opening Reception: Friday, July 19, 5-7pm
Nathan Oliveira is thought of today as one of America’s great masters of extracting profound meaning from abstracted images of the human figure. Oliveira, who died in 2010, was a well-known San Francisco-area artist and a luminary in the Bay Area Figurative movement that included such peers as Richard Diebenkorn and David Park. Oliveira developed a rigorous approach to the human form, affording succinct visual presentiments from the artist’s observed and inner-imaginative realms, and dealing with the existential complexities of man’s engagement with the world.
Oliveira enjoyed Santa Fe and in the 1990s traveled to the city to teach an annual master class at the Santa Fe Institute of Fine Arts. LewAllen Galleries is honored to return the artist’s work to Santa Fe after an absence of many years and to present an exhibition entitled Nathan Oliveira: Paintings and Sculpture, opening July 19 at LewAllen’s Railyard gallery, continuing through September 1. All of the work presented in the show is from the artist’s estate and includes late paintings, works on paper and bronze sculpture.
In a career that spanned 60 years, Oliveira converged stylistic elements of both Abstract Expressionism and figuration, creating a unique and deeply introspective aesthetic of the human form. His artistic goal was to deliver in his paintings, prints and sculptures the closest possible sense of his experience and imagination, exploring the mysteries of the human condition. His work is a kind of visual reliquary of the intense, nearly sacred significance that Oliveira attached to the human figure and its profound power as a pictorial device to inspire meditative imagination in the viewer. The artist’s unique engagement with the human form is the subject of the LewAllen exhibition.
During the 1950s, the Bay Area Figurative movement helped return the human figure to prominence in American painting. It developed into one of the most important post-World War II art movements and provided Oliveira with a point of departure from which to evolve his own individual mode of engaging the human form. He was more concerned with seeking deeper meaning than presenting lighter motifs from everyday life that characterized the work of many of his movement contemporaries. Rendering the figure with dreamlike mystery, Oliveira became known for stripping away its familiar detail, leaving only what he perceived to be its essences. He thereby sought in his work to create a more enduring image and universality of pictorial enterprise – forms and atmospheres that might inspire transcendent emotional resonance and sustain timeless opportunities for contemplation about the human condition.
In addition to major paintings from the aesthetically vibrant later part of the artist’s career, the exhibition also includes wash drawings, water colors and bronze sculptures from various periods. The work in each medium illustrates the versatility of Oliveira’s practice and demonstrates the artist’s facility for austerity of form and his particular fascination with the single figure in space.
Oliveira was born in Oakland, California in 1928 to first generation Portuguese immigrants. Without a father and often left alone by the working-class maternal figures who raised him, he spent a lonely and isolated childhood growing up in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. These experiences developed in him a fierce sense of solitary struggle, influencing much of his later approach to the figure.
Oliveira entered the national art scene in 1959 when he was included in an influential Museum of Modern Art, New York, exhibition entitled “New Figures of Man.” His work was shown alongside that of such established contemporaries as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti. The show description referred to the work included as “effigies of the disquiet man,” an apt moniker for Oliveira’s own artistic mission statement during the balance of his career. Along with his prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship received the previous year, the exposure of his work at MoMA put Oliveira on the art world map. His first solo show in New York at the well-regarded Charles Alan Gallery was a sell-out and included purchases by MoMA and many major collectors. The exhibit also helped validate a wider acceptance for the return of the figure within visual art. Oliveira embarked on a lifelong engagement with the human form, transcending its mere physicality in favor of its broader implications. For him, the figure possessed the power for spriritual revelation. He became a collector of Latin American iconography, masks and figures, finding in their duende the blood-passion that continued to inspire his work.
This inspiration manifests in Oliveira’s unrelenting interest in creating meditative space in which figures eerily float, walk and become boundless in a sort of reductive poeticism conveying meanings more universal than personal. For Oliveira, the “disquietude” of man was forevermore an animating force that, through the image of the figure, could impel transcendent emotional truths.
Oliveira eventually went on to work and teach at Stanford University for more than thirty years. When he retired in 1995, he was honored with a show of his colossal Windhover paintings, works planned to be permanently displayed in the Windhover Contemplation Center, a building dedicated solely to this series of his work and to be completed on the Stanford campus in 2014.
Oliveira’s work was the subject of international museum exhibitions in such venues as London, Paris, Stockholm and Melbourne and the subject of various U.S. retrospectives. He was active until his death in 2010.