Nathan Oliveira

(1928 - 2010)

About The Artist

“I’m not part of the avant-garde,” Portuguese-American artist Nathan Oliveira once owned. “I’m part of the garde that comes afterwards, assimilates, consolidates, refines.” An important member of the San Francisco Bay Area group of figurative artists, Oliveira’s oeuvre resists strict categorization. Although it not difficult to see where his work might find allegiance with certain elements of Abstract Expressionism, Oliveira often distanced himself from such an association. In the late 1950s Oliveira adopted an approach to painting by unsystematically spreading pigment on canvas, erratically and loosely working the paint until an image emerged. The striking result of this process is a large body of work that is situated somewhere between abstraction and figuration.

Oliveira’s works have often been mentioned in the same breath as works by artists like Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, and Edvard Munch and it’s easy to see why. Featuring solitary, enigmatic subjects set against vibrant, but dramatically vacant landscapes, many of Oliveira’s paintings possess an almost shamanistic quality that is at once melancholic and mystical and which is intensified by the artist’s loose, but thick brushwork and skillful manipulation of gradations in light and color. “For me, painting is that magical material, that beautiful stuff that was invented, the ground-up pigments in oil which makes it very malleable,” Oliveira once remarked. “It can be manipulated and changed, darkened, lightened, given different hues and colors, so that by manipulating this material somehow I can find that figure I'm looking for, that figure that represents all the issues I'm bringing up and addressing.”

Oliveira studied painting and printmaking at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts or CCAC) in Oakland, and with Max Beckmann at Mills College in Oakland in the summer of 1950. He was the youngest painter included in the important 1959 exhibition New Images of Man at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which also included works by Jean Dubuffet, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Richard Diebenkorn. In 1963, the UCLA Art Galleries mounted a survey of five years of his paintings and works on paper and in 1973 the Oakland Museum of California organized a fifteen year survey of his paintings. In 1980, a print retrospective of his work was held at California State University, Long Beach, and in 1997 the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco mounted a survey of his work in monotype.

In 1994 Oliveira was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He received numerous additional awards, including two honorary doctorates, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and, in 2000, membership in a distinguished order conferred by the government of Portugal. His work is in held the collections of numerous museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. Three of his paintings are featured in the Anderson Collection at Stanford University, where he was a professor of art for more than 30 years.