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Marlene Park: In Memoriam

posted by CAA — Aug 03, 2010

Herbert R. Hartel Jr. is adjunct associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

Marlene Park (photograph provided by William Park)

Marlene Park, an art historian and professor who specialized in twentieth-century American art and public art, who worked to preserve America’s public art for future generations, and who became an accomplished photographer in her later years, died suddenly on July 10, 2010, at the age of 78.

Park was born in Los Angeles on December 1, 1931. Her father, Warren Shobert, was a lawyer who worked for Paramount Studios. He claimed that he had met Marlene Dietrich on a stage set, and that she asked him to name his child after her, which is how Marlene’s name was apparently chosen. Park graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1953 with a major in merchandising. Not long after, while working in New York, she took a course at Columbia University that inspired her to pursue graduate study in art history. She received her MA and PhD in art history from Columbia, where she specialized in medieval art and studied with Meyer Schapiro. Her dissertation was a study of the Crucifix of Fernando and Sancha, an ivory sculpture from 1063 that is in the National Archeological Museum in Madrid. In 1958, she married William Park, who later became a professor of English at Sarah Lawrence College, and together they had two children. She was a professor of art history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York (CUNY), from 1968 until 2000, and served on the faculty in the PhD Program in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center for over twenty years.

Once at John Jay, Park took a path similar to Schapiro as her scholarly efforts shifted from medieval art to American art. A pioneering scholar of 1930s government-supported art and American public art, she coauthored two books with her John Jay colleague Gerald Markowitz: New Deal for Art: The Government Art Projects of the 1930s with Examples from New York City and State (1977) and Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal (1984). She also wrote numerous essays and articles on New York post-office murals, images of lynching in the 1930s, and artists Blanche Lazzell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. In the 1980s Park was president of the Public Art Preservation Committee, based in New York. In this capacity, she worked to preserve important examples of public art, including the murals at the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco.

As a member of CUNY’s art-history faculty, Park taught courses on American art of the 1930s, American art between the World Wars, public art in the United States, and American women sculptors. She opened the eyes of many students, introducing them to wonderful but little-known artists who became exciting topics for research papers and dissertations. I was one of many to benefit from this inspiration and guidance, and the list of those who similarly benefited is impossibly long to enumerate. Park cultivated enthusiasm for American modernist art among her students with an uncommon sense of caring and nurturing; she adeptly led them to serious, respected, and useful scholarship. She knew how to encourage and guide her students, to make them scholars while caring about them as people. In turn, her students had the utmost appreciation and regard for her. She embodied the ideal that art history is a humanistic academic endeavor.

Years spent documenting public art across the United States initiated and developed Park’s interest in photography as an art form. Many of her photographs of public art transformed themselves from documentation to artistic statements in their own right, and did so in that quietly thoughtful way that was uniquely Marlene. Upon retiring she and her husband moved to Santa Cruz, where she continued to spend time with her children and grandchildren. Devoting herself to photography, she created beautiful works in which she observed and recorded everyday life, the landscape of northern-central California, wildlife, and mechanical forms. In her seventies she learned the complexities of digital photography. Her photographs have been exhibited at Sarah Lawrence College, the Santa Cruz Art League, and elsewhere, and can be seen at www.marlenepark.com. Park exhibited her work often and acquired an impressive reputation as a serious and talented photographer. She also became very active in the art scene in Santa Cruz. Park’s decade of retirement was a model of how one can be productive and creative in those later years. She proved that although we must get older, we do not have to become stale. On the day she died, she attended the opening of a juried exhibition that included one of her photographs. I think Marlene left us after what was a very good day for her, a day spent doing what she loved, and for that we should be grateful.

Park is survived by her husband William, her children Catharine and William, her stepsons Jonathan and Geoffrey, and nine grandchildren. She will truly be missed by family, friends, colleagues, and former students, but will live on in her family, scholarship, photography, and the new generations of art historians she educated.

Filed under: Obituaries