Frank Lobdell

Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery

Frank Lobdell’s recent pictures suggest narration the way Australian bark paintings do, by spreading and tilting bits of pictorial incident to give a sense of elastic time. The widely stacked swatches of radiant colors mostly trued-up blues, blacks, greens, and thunderous yellows—perform as syntactical compartments that interlock emotionally, whatever their rationale. Their hues are like the perfumes of colors you once thought there were precise names for. Each painting could be the story of a particular day, from sunrise to midnight, and the soul’s mood swings within that span. To each localized color is fitted a specific linear sign—most prominently, a knobby, dark-contoured glyph that undergoes self-entanglement like a paroxysmal Tinker Toy. It’s a psycho-spiritual progress articulated as a dance diagram, with the kinetic twists of a contortionist’s tumbling act thrown in. Any catechism informing these mandalic episodes is strictly heterodox and as they say, “intuitive.”

The original aims of many Bay Area abstract painters in the ’50s—Lobdell among them—were grand and fuzzy. Their pictures bristled with yearnings for an uncosmetic, primally intuited iconography prompted by Clyfford Still’s hard-won brand of beaux-arts mysticism. Lobdell, while having kept the faith, has never appeared clearer, more emphatic, or less dour. His characteristic involutions are all here, but they are broader and brighter, and delivered with variation in place of fuss.

The main thing is how thoroughly, even dashingly, covered the surfaces of these large, taut, complex pictures appear. Such surfaces invite close looking. Most of them appear to have been built up and out from the lower left, with the artist’s basic, flatly colored forms holding (often as if in colloidal suspension) their airy plenitude of big and little markings. Beside humanoid and constellatory or molecular point-and-line glyphs, there are squiggly spirals and other, filigreed or concentrically raking abstract marks; pulsating discs with tiny flamelike centers pressed from the tube; an indigo “coffin” on a pale blue rug (an elegiac duo that moans “Rothko!”). In both Spring ’89, 1989, and Winter I, 1990, an exploding blob evokes the frontal birth throes of some cosmic egg. Such whopping ur-figures surge sensibly within the pictorial spread, but the overall tautness allows as well for miniature reveries: along the rim of a blocky silhouette will occur a microscopic Monument Valley, its flats and ridges limned to mouse-hole dimensions in seemingly direct homage to George Herriman or Saul Steinberg.

Who would have thought that Lobdell, long celebrated for his gritty rectitude, would let sheer buoyancy count for so much? This is an instance, much like that of Philip Guston in the late ’60s, of a senior painter having pulled together all his resources into a heightened statement, for the likes of which his earlier work provided pungent clues. Also, as with Guston’s late pictures, these recent Lobdells have the advantage of looking timely—peculiarly in sync with the newly limbered-up modes of emblematic abstract painting—without the artist’s having guessed, much less worried, that such might be the case.

Bill Berkson