Frank Lobdell sought meaning amid a war-scarred world and put what he found into his deeply introspective paintings, prints, and drawings.
They say truth is the first casualty of war, but for the artists who saw action in World War I or World War II, combat revealed devastating truths that had a profound impact on their work. Such was the case with the West Coast abstract painter Frank Lobdell (1921–2013). In April 1945, Lobdell, a lieutenant in the U.S. army, witnessed the grisly aftermath of an atrocity in a small town in Germany. The Nazis, retreating before the soon-to-be-victorious Allied forces, had herded a group of concentration camp prisoners into a barn, barred the doors, and lit it on fire. Lobdell was among those who discovered the hundreds of charred, twisted corpses. “My identity was shaken by that experience,” he recalled. “Somewhere in All Quiet on the Western Front, [the author Erich Maria Remarque] remarks that there are no survivors. I think he’s absolutely right. No one who has been in any of these wars truly survives. It’ll haunt you for the rest of your life…. I painted my way out of a lot of this. Fortunately I had the talent to do this.”
Lobdell had been developing his talent before he enlisted, and long before he had personally experienced it, the horror of war had been impressed on his consciousness by a work of art—no less than Picasso’s Guernica (1937). This epoch-making work, which depicts the effects of German dive-bombing during the Spanish Civil War, was on view at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1940 as part of a Picasso retrospective, hung in an installation alongside dozens of preparatory drawings and studies. At the time, Lobdell was studying at the St. Paul School of Fine Arts in his home state of Minnesota, and he and five fellow students drove for hours through a blizzard to see the exhibition. Lobdell spent the better part of three days in the Art Institute, absorbing the power of Picasso’s work and imagining himself into the role of artist. “I felt the power of painting to really move,” he recalled. “I wanted that power, the power to stir emotions as strongly as I was feeling the work I was looking at.” Lobdell would eventually achieve that power, but first there was the war, followed by a long march through a series of styles that began in somber darkness and ended in luminous clarity.
After his discharge from the Army, Lobdell pursued further art studies through the G.I. Bill, choosing the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco (now the San Francisco Art Institute), a small school on Russian Hill that was then attracting a sizable contingent of young veterans like himself. Under its director, Douglas MacAgy, the school had become a powerhouse of teaching talent, boasting such luminaries as Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Clay Spohn, and Clyfford Still on the faculty. Although Still was perhaps the most influential of the teachers at CSFA at the time, Lobdell avoided his classes, concerned that Still was too domineering and tended to imprint his style on his students at the expense of their individuality. Still’s abstract painting defiantly rejected European elegance in favor of a deliberately rough and crude celebration of American individuality.
Lobdell absorbed some of Still’s lessons anyway, while setting his own course toward a more refined and subtle gestural approach. In 1950–51, partly out of disgust at the outbreak of the Korean War, he left the U.S. for Paris, where he continued his studies at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, still funded by the G.I. Bill. In Paris he had formative experiences of seeing the works of Goya and Rembrandt, but was dissatisfied with the postwar French art scene, which he found weak and uninspired. Lobdell’s decision to return to San Francisco instead of settling in New York, where the Abstract Expressionist movement was flourishing, cemented his status as a West Coast artist from then on. Although the Bay Area lacked the institutional and financial supports for art that the East Coast had, it would soon develop a distinctive abstract school of its own, pioneered by artists such as Lobdell, Richard Diebenkorn, and Hassel Smith.
Lobdell’s earliest mature work, from the late 1940s, is either allover gestural abstraction—often bright and colorful—or Picassoesque deconstructions and distortions of the human figure in gridlike Cubistic format. But after his return from Europe, he began to paint in a new vein, dark and brooding, with vague suggestions of caves, whirlpools, and human forms spiraling through a troubled space. The palette of these works is black, grays, and browns, for the most part. Many of these paintings draw heavily on Goya, an artist whose horror of war equaled Lobdell’s. The House Un-American Activities Committee and the Korean War fueled a moral outrage in Lobdell similar to what the Spanish artist felt in response to the brutal events of his era. Abstracted allusions to Goya paintings such as Saturn Devouring his Children, Duel With Cudgels, and Madrid, 3rd of May 1808, as well as to the indelible prints series Los Caprichos and Disasters of War, are not hard to find in Lobdell’s paintings from the ’50s.
At the height of the Vietnam War, which appalled him (even as his son Frank Jr. served in it), Lobdell created the “Dance” series of paintings (1969–72), which reprise in an abstract way the ghoulish “Dance of Death” theme of the Middle Ages and Northern Renaissance, which Hans Holbein and others vividly depicted. In this series, the predominant colors are brown and red, suggestive of mud and blood. Both abstract and figurative (as is much of Lobdell’s work, in a way that questions the validity of either term as a closed category), the paintings seem to depict a human figure cavorting in a circle, with ambiguous biomorphic shapes pressing in around the perimeter.
Lobdell’s interest in the figure also produced another body of work that is, at least superficially, very unlike the rest of his creations. This consists of black-ink drawings of nude female models, which he made over a 15-year period beginning in 1959. At that time, Lobdell started participating in weekly drawing sessions with his friends Diebenkorn and Bischoff, a practice that he continued after leaving CFSA, where he had been on the faculty, and moving to Stanford University in 1966, where he would remain until his retirement in 1991. In Palo Alto, his drawing partners were Nathan Oliveira, Keith Boyle, and Jim Johnson.
Part of the reason for this practice seems to have been social; the camaraderie of spending time drawing with fellow artists assuaged the feelings of isolation that come from long stretches of solitary painting in the studio. But beyond that, Lobdell felt that the process of drawing the figure from life was a discipline that was good for his hand and eye, perhaps especially his hand. He said that “drawing the figure also educates the hand. When I’m drawing anything in paint, in any of these images, the hand has already been there—it’s been educated by so much work on the figure. The eye, too, I suppose. But my hand has to understand the origin of a form. In that sense, drawing is my way of thinking.”
In the 1970s, Lobdell’s work underwent a major shift, away from gestural abstraction and the human figure alike and toward a brightly colored, highly symbolic approach to communicating meaning. His paintings from the late ’70s and ’80s, especially the “Pier 70” and “Bleecker” series, place sharply outlined graphic images against very richly colored fictive spaces whose palettes of rich greens, blues, and yellows transmit a much different emotional energy than the earlier bodies of work. As for the symbols in the paintings and prints (made in collaboration with June Wayne’s Tamarind lithography workshop), they somewhat resemble motifs from Asian religions like the Chinese yin-yang, Native American petroglyphs, or universal human symbols such as the labyrinth. Geometrical figures including spirals and straight lines also pervade the glowing spaces, like lines of force. Lobdell would rework the same compositions in completely different color schemes, a clear indication that the color itself had symbolic value for the artist.
Despite this idea of the symbolic, the viewer should not treat these works as puzzles to be decoded. Lobdell’s symbolism is purely personal, and what is salient in his work is the heroic search for meaning in an apparently meaningless and cruel world. It is the process of finding meaning that matters, rather than the “meaning” itself, which in any case is different for each person. This existentialist position finds its analogue in Lobdell’s belief about the role of the artist’s hand. While the end result should by no means be discounted, the journey is just as important as the destination, and the very activity of making a work of art with one’s own body itself imbues the work with meaning, a meaning that the eye alone cannot register.
By John Dorfman