a painter’s journey

Shifting between pure abstraction and implied imagery, painter Frank Lobdell has spent nearly seven decades developing his own unique syntax. Now, still working in California, at 86 years old, he continues on his path toward a universal language of vision.


Two experiences were pivotal for the formation of Frank Lobdell’s individual style. In 1940, the 19-year-old art student, who had been studying in Minneapolis and St. Paul with modernist painters Eugene Dana and Cameron Booth, went to see the Picasso retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago and spent three days looking at Guernica. The impact of seeing this cataclysmic work by the breaker-up of the human figure remains a salient feature in his own painting. During his service in the army he encountered the corpses of prisoners burnt to death by the Nazis, which reenforced his response to Picasso’s treatment of the figure. After his discharge from the army he enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) where Clyfford Still was the preeminent presence. Still, having absorbed much of the history of painting now called for the liberation from all past styles and for discarding the legacy of “European hegemony.” Still, he created paintings of boundless space, canvases enormous in dimension and of great visual power. Unlike Picasso’s paintings, in which drawing is so critical, here were pictures in which the element of line was just about eliminated from their rough-grained surfaces in which sensuous color created the space. Lobdell, as he developed his own authentic work, bridged the gap between Picasso’s modernist tradition and Still’s apparent rupture with the past. Lobdell also adopted Still’s attitude of personal integrity and never subscribed to any current modes. Although he taught at the California School of Fine Arts and at Stanford University, he remained essentially a solitary artist.

By the late 1940s, after having seen Still’s solo show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1947, he discarded his earlier work that had been under the influence of European artists (Klee and Miro as well as Picasso). He soon found his own voice, in paintings such as 31 December 1948 (1948) in which black finger-like forms and crawling shapes are juxtaposed with light-colored forms in a fluid universe.

In 1950, Lobdell decided to go to Paris to study on the G.I. Bill at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. Unlike Sam Francis, who also left the Bay Area at this time and whose art flowered as he could see Monets, Bonnards and Matisses first hand, Lobdell found that Paris had little to offer him. So he returned to San Francisco, visiting his friend Richard Diebenkorn in Albuquerque on the way back.

The paintings he made in the early and mid-’50s are done with heavy dark lines, inscribed on thick white grounds and depict isolated anthropomorphic beings. During this time he became absorbed with the images of Goya’s prints and paintings, which led him to create phantom images, such as April 1954, Number 1 (1954), which stimulate the viewer’s imagination with visions of strange organisms conjured by the rich fantasy of the artist. In works such as this one, Lobdell transforms the process of painting into an adventure, allowing the paint to flow freely without plan or premeditation, so that his own spontaneous intuition is given free rein. A slightly later painting, April 1957 (1957), shows the artist at the apogee of his powers. A ghostly figure, cruciform in shape with upraised arms, is floating diagonally in black space. Here we see Abstract Expressionism at its best, transcending both reality and formalism. At the same time, the suggestion of a human form can be seen as a part of postwar figuration, as seen in de Kooning’s Women and in the paintings of Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon.

In 1957 Lobdell was invited to join the faculty of the California School of Fine Arts and the following year he had his first solo museum show at the M.H. de Young Museum, but in 1960 he still had no gallery representation in San Francisco. Lobdell never played the game of pandering to dealers, collectors or curators. In 1965, at the suggestion of his friend Nathan Oliveira, he began his long teaching career at Stanford University, and the following year Walter Hopps, then director of the Pasadena Museum of Art, curated a full-scale retrospective there.

In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, he was motivated to convey his own antiwar statement: Summer 1967 (In Memory of James Budd Dixon) (1967). The work’s title eulogizes Lobdell’s friend, the painter James Dixon, who had just died. But in its allusion to the horrors of war, Lobdell’s painting also referred to the memory of his father, who had served in World War I, to his son, who had been sent to fight in Vietnam, and to his own experiences in WWII, having witnessed the horrendous cruelty of the Nazis. Dismembered and scrambled human limbs appear on the left of the tripartite composition, while a figure on the upper left, with a dot pattern and claws, seems caught in a spiral web. In the center, heavy black shapes twist and churn against a blue field, crossing each other and creating an anxious, fearful form. The late critic Thomas Albright fittingly interpreted Lobdell’s paintings as images of “ponderous existential uncertainty.”

In the early 1970s Lobdell became engaged in a series of Dance paintings, so-named after Picasso’s The Dance (1925) in the Tate Gallery. In Lobdell’s pictures we see twisted, distorted figures, swirling and at times hovering in space, denoting a covert sexual imagery, which appears more overtly in many of his life drawings of female models, often done in the life drawing sessions with Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn.

The mid-’70s were a difficult time for Lobdell (as it was for his colleague Oliveira). The focus of the art world turned away from painting toward minimal sculpture, conceptual artwork, and performance art. The insanity of the Vietnam War continued. By the end of the decade Lobdell turned to work successfully at monotype and produced abstract compositions with circles, crescents, spirals, stars and zigzags moving freely in space. Afterward, he continued working in a more geometric mode, using symbolic signs and fantasy tools of rich invention. He often juxtaposed saturated warm and cool colors, in works that at times refer to Paleolithic cave paintings and to Anatolian kilims, such as Untitled 10.23.91 (1991).

In contrast to the tragic earlier paintings his canvases became more playful. Forms suggested in earlier work now find resolution, as they seem to float in a celestial realm. Or they deal with more earthly matter. In a fascinating recent picture, Fall I 2003 Francisco Street (2003), named after his large new studio, a large phallic icon reigns in the center of curved shapes, revolving around it. Here, in this work by the octogenarian, Eros is in the forefront and Thanatos is left waiting.