by Robyn Wise

A fixture on San Francisco’s Hunters Point since 1983, John DiPaolo remembers when the city’s industrial southeastern shore was still a functioning shipyard. “I grew up here as an artist,” he reflects, sitting in his studio, all soaring ceilings and dazzling waterfront light. The space is conducive to the large-scale, canvases he’s created over a 40-year career, driven by a love of process and an ambition to push the limits of abstraction. 

The Brooklyn-born DiPaolo initially studied at New York’s School of Visual Arts. After moving to San Francisco in 1971 to attend San Francisco Art Institute and later San Francisco State University, he abandoned an edgy realist style—influenced by Pop masters like Rosenquist—to devote himself to the exploration of abstraction and the materiality of paint. Since then, DiPaolo’s dynamic compositions have been acquired by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the San Jose Museum of Art, and many private collectors.

Gallerist Lisa Dolby Chadwick, who has represented the artist for 20 years, was an early champion. “John has a deep interest in refracted light and movement,” she says. “His work also has a strong gestural quality, using thick layers of paint to build up tactile surfaces and large, quick brushstrokes to express immediacy.”

Simultaneously abstract and figurative, DiPaolo’s paintings may resonate with elements of Georg Baselitz, Gerhard Richter and Terry Winters, but are distinctly his own. They balance a play of opposites: intention and chance, outer and inner worlds, the personal and universal. Unresolved forms recognizable in some works call to mind water, the human figure, geologic cross-sections and written language.

“I begin with an idea, usually about space,” he says. “But as the painting unfolds, something enters in and changes the direction. This continues until the anchors I originally embedded have disappeared, and I’m doing something I never expected to do. It amazes me every time.” The result is a record of his process and the tender struggle involved.

He executes the pictures in oils with brushes and palette knives, typically working on several canvases at once. As a colorist, DiPaolo leans toward blue, white, gray, ochre and red—a moody yet vibrant palette that doesn’t always harmonize, and adds to the refined tension in his pictures. Asked what inspires him, the laid-back DiPaolo replies, “It’s all about just showing up. I find inspiration in the doing.” 

Looking around his studio, there’s evidence of much doing: He’s brimming with ideas for a show at Dolby Chadwick Gallery in February. Admirers will recognize a continuum in his latest work, but also new directions—some marked by a pared-down color palette, which DiPaolo admits is a challenge. “I’ve always wanted to make a red-and-black painting,” he confesses, pointing to a completed canvas. “Partly because I wasn’t sure I could do it. It takes great discipline to use only two colors.”  

A version of this article appeared in the October 2015 issue of San Francisco Cottages & Gardens with the headline: "The Big Abstract."

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