Nathan Oliveira

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Nathan Oliveira Painting Example (1961)


Nathan Oliveira (1928 – 2010)

Born Nathan Joseph Roderick, he would ultimately be known as the artist Nathan Oliveira. He was born December 19, 1928 in Oakland, California. His father had originally immigrated from Portugal with the last name Rodrigues, but had since changed the family name to Roderick. Regarding the artist’s latter last name – Oliveira, he took it from his mother’s second husband who was also a Portuguese immigrant.

In the late 1940s, San Francisco was a perfect place for poets, musicians and artists, so Nathan Oliveira moved there. He instantly became a member of the Bay Area figurative school. This group consisted of painters such as Elmer Bichoff, David Park and Richard Diebenkorn. These artists had absorbed Abstract Expressionism, but landscape and figurative painting were the main points of their work. However, the style of Nathan Oliveira paintings can’t be precisely categorized.

Nathan Oliveira paintings were abstract, painted with a brushy style – bravura. His paintings reflect influence of European artists with the darker vision and existential angst – artists such as Edvard Munch, Oskar Kokoschka, Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti. Another influence, maybe the most visible, is by Max Beckmann, the German painter. Nathan Oliveira studied with him briefly and stated in a 1992 interview the following: “There was a power that was emanating from his painting that was far more potent than what I was recognizing in most things I was seeing, and I wanted this”. “That made sense to me, that was the influence.” Oliveira’s paintings are a bit different than the paintings his fellows from figurative school. Although he used to work with vivid colors, he was a bit more committed to the darker side.

Nathan Oliveira used to take painting lessons from a marine artist. This later encouraged him to enroll in the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. In the summer of 1950, he studied at Mills College also in Oakland. He graduated in 1951, and received his master’s degree one year later. After serving in the Army, he resided in San Francisco. He lived at the Presidio and started showing his work. Nathan Oliveira paintings were shown in a solo exhibition in 1958, at the Alan Gallery in Manhattan. In 1959, the new curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, Peter Selz, included Nathan Oliveira paintings in the exhibition called New Figures of Man. This brought him a huge success in a short period of time. Nathan Oliveira paintings were described as spontaneous, just like he “was finding the figure in the process of painting it”, as Mr. Selz once wrote about him.

But this new fame and its demands were too overwhelming for the artist. He was constantly working on producing new paintings and this led to his physical exhaustion. There was also the appearance of Pop Art, a new movement at the time which began replacing his art. In an interview from 1978, Nathan Oliveira said: “I reached a dry spell, lacking in imagination, and the incentive seemed to be gone“. It was about this time that he began concentrating on prints, drawings and watercolors. In 1965, Nathan Oliveira became a permanent member of the art department at Stanford University. There he taught studio art for almost 30 years and created a printmaking program.

Although his paintings didn’t always portray the human figure, he always returned to figurative paintings and they were quite intense. In 1970, he produced a painting called Standing Figure and this painting clearly represents that intensity, with a pink female figure without a face, turned toward the viewer with a ghostly white death mask. Fascinating are also the Nathan Oliveira paintings with dancers and runners, with red and dark orange backgrounds. These paintings belong to the last decade of Nathan Oliveira paintings.

In the 1990s, Nathan Oliveira created the Stelae, a series of paintings with vertical forms which resemble the menhirs of Stonehenge, the solemn majesty of Egyptian obelisks or Han dynasty tomb posts, but also resembled the artist’s earlier paintings with the isolated figures at the same time.

Nathan Oliveira paintings later included a series of large-scale landscapes called The Windhover, named after a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The main figures on these landscapes are birds – red-tailed hawks and kestrels, birds that the artist had the opportunity to observe very close to his painting studio.

In 2010, at the age of 81, artist Nathan Oliveira passed away in Palo Alto, CA.