Acclaimed CCA Artist Nathan Oliveira Dies at 81

Nathan Oliveira (left) with fellow CCA alumnus David Ireland in 2008

We are sad to report that one of our most illustrious alumni and former faculty members, Nathan Oliveira, died on November 13. He was 81. A memorial is planned for the afternoon of January 12, 2011, at Stanford Memorial Church, at a time to be announced later.

Oliveira was born on December 19, 1928, in Oakland. He received his BFA in 1951 and his MFA in 1952, both from California College of the Arts (CCA), and he taught at the college from 1952 to 1956. He held a tenured teaching position at Stanford University from 1964 until he retired in 1995. He received many awards during his lifetime, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and honorary doctorates from CCA (1968) and the San Francisco Art Institute (1996). He also served on CCA’s Board of Trustees from 2002 to 2005.

Over the course of his career Oliveira took part in hundreds of important exhibitions at major museums and galleries. He was a pioneer in the return to figuration in American painting; in the 1950s he and several fellow artists originated the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Their group was reacting against nonobjective, abstract painting, in particular Abstract Expressionism. Others in the group included Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, and Manuel Neri.

Oliveira came into national prominence in 1959 when he was included in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition New Images of Man, which was understood at the time as a signal of a return to prominence for figurative art after many years of near-total dominance by Abstract Expressionism.

Oliveira was also an outstanding printmaker—accomplished in lithography and monotype—and he in many ways expanded and redefined the medium for curators and artists alike.

He often described his work as emotionally charged, and as making a “spiritual contribution.” He frequently explored the relationship between people and animals, and his figures and landscapes have magical, shamanistic overtones. His figures are often weighty and strong, appealing to the senses and to a deep feeling of humanity.

In a catalog essay for the San Jose Museum of Art’s 2002 retrospective of the artist’s work, renowned art historian Peter Selz wrote, “Nathan Oliveira’s passion is for continuing an inner-directed artistic tradition attached to the human subject. . . . The evocation of mystery that the viewer experiences in Oliveira’s work derives from a depth of feeling refracted through artistic tradition and transmitted to the spectator by the artist’s hand.”