By WILLIAM GRIMES
Nathan Oliveira, a leading Bay Area artist who achieved national prominence fusing Abstract Expressionism and figuration in psychologically charged canvases that explored human isolation and alienation, died on Saturday at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 81.
The cause was complications of pulmonary fibrosis and diabetes, his son, Joe, said.
Mr. Oliveira emerged as an artist in the swirling creative milieu that made San Francisco a magnet for poets, jazz musicians and painters in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Almost by default he is assigned to the Bay Area figurative school, a group of painters whose members had absorbed the lessons of Abstract Expressionism but who returned to the human figure and landscape in their canvases. Yet his work resisted neat categorization.
Like his somewhat older peers in that group, notably David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, Mr. Oliveira employed a bravura, brushy style of paint application. His abstracted figures and landscapes, however, reflected an affinity with the darker vision of European artists like Oskar Kokoschka and Edvard Munch, or more nearly contemporary artists like Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon, who shared his sense of human conflict and existential angst.
Particularly influential was the German painter Max Beckmann, with whom he studied briefly.
“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,” Mr. Oliveira said in a 1992 interview. “That made sense to me, that was the influence.”
Mr. Oliveira’s canvases, with their solitary, spindly figures suspended in a soupy atmosphere, shared the vivid color sense of his fellow Bay Area artists, but his commitment to the darker side of the human drama set his paintings apart from the sun-kissed, hedonistic world of Mr. Diebenkorn’s landscapes.
His somber lithographs and monotypes, usually in black and white and strongly influenced by Goya, conveyed a turbulent sense of drama and struggle. Early prints like “Death of an Ant” (1956), with its magnified subject twisted in what seems an almost human agony, served as precursors to works like “To Edgar Allan Poe” (1971), a haunting series of lithographs that evoke the romantic sturm und drang of a poet Mr. Oliveira admired deeply.
“I’m not part of the avant-garde,” he told Stanford magazine in 2002, “I’m part of the garde that comes afterwards, assimilates, consolidates, refines.”
Nathan Joseph Roderick was born in Oakland, Calif., on Dec. 19, 1928. His father, a Portuguese immigrant who changed his name from Rodrigues, separated from Nathan’s mother when the boy was an infant. She later married another Portuguese immigrant, George Oliveira, whose last name his stepson adopted.
After taking painting lessons from a marine artist, Mr. Oliveira enrolled in the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1951 and a master’s degree in 1952. It was in the summer of 1950 that he studied with Beckmann at Mills College in Oakland.
In 1951 he married Ramona Christensen, who died in 2006. In addition to their son, Joe, of Palo Alto, he is survived by a sister, Marcia Heath of Millbrae, Calif.; two daughters, Lisa Lamoure of Fresno, Calif., and Gina Oliveira of Kihei, Hawaii; and five grandchildren.
After serving in the Army as a cartographic draftsman, stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco, Mr. Oliveira began showing in California and in 1958 was given a solo show in Manhattan at the Alan Gallery.
He remained a local figure, however, known primarily for his printmaking, until Peter Selz, at the time the new curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, included him in the exhibition “New Figures of Man” in 1959. Overnight, Mr. Oliveira found wide acclaim for his nervous human images, built up with thick layers of scuffed and scratched paint. The canvases had a spontaneous, searching quality, as if, Mr. Selz once wrote, the artist was “finding the figure in the process of painting it.”
The wave of adulation nearly overwhelmed him. He worked frantically to meet the demand for his paintings, but soon became exhausted by his schedule and dispirited by the rise of Pop Art, which was relegating his own art to the margins. “I reached a dry spell, lacking in imagination, and the incentive seemed to be gone,” he said in a 1978 interview.
Abandoning painting, he concentrated on prints, watercolors and drawings. He did not return to the easel until 1965, the year that he became a permanent member of the art department at Stanford University, where he created a printmaking program and taught studio art for nearly 30 years.
Mr. Oliveira strayed from the human figure from time to time but always returned, with startling intensity in works like “Standing Figure” (1970), a pink female figure turned toward the viewer with a ghostly white death mask instead of a face. Just as compelling were the elongated dancers and runners, virtually dissolved into their red or burnt-orange backgrounds, in his paintings of the last decade.
In the 1990s he embarked on a series of paintings, the “Stelae,” whose vertical forms evoked the solemn majesty of Egyptian obelisks, Han dynasty tomb posts or the menhirs of Stonehenge. At the same time they bore an unmistakable resemblance to the isolated figures of his earlier, human-centric paintings.
In his later years Mr. Oliveira intermittently worked on “The Windhover,” a series of large-scale landscapes. Named after a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, they incorporate the curves and wings of the kestrels and red-tailed hawks he observed outside his studio in the Stanford foothills.