FRANK LOBDELL: Figure Drawings

Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University, Stanford, California

November 11, 2009 – February 21, 2010

In 1960, Frank Lobdell told an interviewer “being anonymous is really the best condition to be able to create.” Thankfully, in the half-century that has passed since the artist made this remark, he hasn’t quite achieved his goal, but he has gone his own way, building upon his early encounters with the work of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, of other Abstract Expressionists and, most importantly, Pablo Picasso. In this, he differs from his peer Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), who was influenced by Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse.

Frank Lobdell, “Reclining Model” (1974). Pen, ink, and wash on wove. Gift of Ramona C. and Nathan Oliveira, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University

Born in 1921 in Kansas City, Missouri, Lobdell attended the legendary California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) during its heyday. And yet, while he saw and was eventually deeply moved by Still’s 1947 exhibition at the California Palace Legion of Honor, Lobdell deliberately did not study with him. His work was influenced by Still, but he never worked in his style the way Still’s students Ernest Briggs (1923-1984) and Edward Dugmore (1915-1996) did. Instead, he embraced a wider range of influences, particularly the Surrealist-influenced work of Mark Rothko and William Baziotes, and managed to wrest from them and others something all his own. However, this only tells part of the story. The other part is his lifelong commitment to drawing, something that Still, Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt, all of whom taught at CSFA while he was a student there, are not known for.

In 1959, after David Park stopped attending because of health reasons, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, who are central to the Bay Area Figurative Movement, invited Lobdell, who has never been considered part of this movement, to be the third member of a group that met weekly to draw from the model. These sessions lasted until 1964, when for various professional reasons the group went their separate ways. In 1966, after Lobdell started teaching at Stanford University, he continued the practice of weekly drawing sessions with Nathan Oliveira and others until 1974, when he returned to working only abstractly. Consisting of around 60 drawings by Lobdell, along with examples by Bischoff, Diebenkorn, and Oliveira, all of which were done during these weekly drawing sessions, this exhibition provided a fascinating, up-close view of the artists drawing from the same model, but working out their own preoccupations. For those who know the figure drawings of Bischoff and Diebenkorn, Lobdell’s will come as a revelation.

In contrast to Bischoff’s interest in a psychically charged space and Diebenkorn’s exploration of contour which often resulted in a muted eroticism, Lobdell was engrossed in posing the figure in ways that enabled him to articulate the tension of plane, space, and rectangle. He liked to set things against each other, often at extreme angles, to contort the figure, and to use a mirror. His poses include an inverted figure, with the model’s head at the bottom of the rectangle and legs extending toward the top of the sheet in extremely twisted, seemingly impossible poses (realism based on synthetic cubism). He juxtaposes patterns, sinuous lines, and harsh angles. These figure drawings aren’t studies, but works that stand on their own. Like Diebenkorn, but for different purposes, the artist used drawing to test and explore possibilities.

Lobdell used pen, gouache, graphite, ink washes, and ballpoint pen, often combining them. If Diebenkorn and Bischoff looked to Hopper and Matisse, Lobdell looked more to Picasso; he was interested in frank sexuality and many of his drawings exude an animal heat. His use of ink washes establishes a crepuscular mood. A number of drawings stick in the mind’s eye. I was struck by one that was done entirely in ballpoint pen, the mass of tangled hair made up of individual lines. It was a tour de force because the ballpoint denies touch and is unforgiving—you can’t go back.

One senses that drawing the female nude was a way for Lobdell to both caress and violate the figure, to explore his own imagination without ever becoming anecdotal. He didn’t become embarrassed or deny his own contradictory feelings. Although his figure drawings aren’t as well-known as Diebenkorn’s, they certainly are equal to them. The difference is that Diebenkorn’s line is elegant and restrained, while Lobdell’s is cruder and harsher. A darker current of sybaritic feeling courses through them.

My one complaint about the exhibition is the catalog, which reproduces a chapter, both the same images and essays, from the monograph, Frank Lobdell: The Art of Making and Meaning. Why make an exact duplicate? This doesn’t serve either the artist or the viewer.


John Yau