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Frank Lobdell, influential Bay Area painter, dies

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Frank Lobdell, one of the last of the group of great painters that put Bay Area art on the map, died in Palo Alto on Saturday, December 14. He was 92 and had been in declining health.

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Frank Irving Lobdell was born August 21, 1921, in Kansas City, MO, the son of Ruth Saxton and Earl Lobdell. He grew up in Minnesota, and studied at the St. Paul School of Fine Arts in St. Paul (1939-40).

Lobdell served with the U.S. Army (1942-46) in World War II.. In April 1945 Lieutenant Lobdell witnessed the atrocities of war first-hand when his unit came upon a horrific scene in Gardelegen, Germany, where more than 1,000 concentration camp prisoners had been burned alive.

This experience shaped his psyche and formed the backdrop for much of his later work. Injured in the war, he spent time in a hospital in England before returning to the U.S. in 1946.

"After serving in World War II, Frank Lobdell confronted the question of whether art retained any relevance in a world forever transformed by the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the horrors of war," said Timothy Anglin Burgard, The Ednah Root Curator of American Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

"In the ensuing decades he worked to resurrect the human figure-which had been physically and psychically traumatized during the war-utilizing a vocabulary of archetypal themes and abstract symbols. Tempering an existential sensibility with a transcendent humanism, he forged a unique pictorial language for our modern age."

After the war, Lobdell moved to Sausalito, CA, and attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco (CSFA, now San Francisco Art Institute) on the G.I. Bill (1947-50), where faculty members included Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and David Park. At CSFA, Lobdell began a lifelong friendship with fellow painter Richard Diebenkorn.

Lobdell's war experiences made him a confirmed pacifist. At the onset of the Korean War, he left the U.S. for Paris, where he painted at L'Academie de la Grande Chaumiere (1950-51), until returning to the Bay Area in September 1951. In 1957 he was invited to join the faculty at CSFA, where he taught until 1964.

In 1959 Lobdell began to attend weekly figure drawing sessions with Diebenkorn, Park, and Elmer Bischoff, and he became a member of the group after Park's death later that year. The artists continued to meet weekly in each other's studios until 1965, when they accepted new teaching positions.

Lobdell was Visiting Artist at Stanford University in 1965, where he was asked to form the graduate art department. He was named Professor of Art at Stanford in 1966 and taught there until retiring in 1991. At Stanford, Lobdell resumed weekly figure drawing sessions with fellow instructors Nathan Oliveira, Keith Boyle, Jim Johnson, and others. In his figure drawings, Lobdell focused on large shapes formed by light and shadow, and these elements later coalesced in the imagery characteristic of his paintings and prints.

His early work was profoundly influenced by Clifford Still, a highly influential teacher at the California School of Fine Arts. Lobdell's paintings resonated with jagged blacks and amorphous figures set against a thickly painted ground, suggesting man's elemental struggles, "a recreation of the battle between figure and landscape," Thomas Albright wrote in a 1983 review.

Albright went on to describe the painter's signature early-'50s vocabulary of "ambiguous, enigmatic, vaguely archaeological images, some of them suggesting roots in Northwestern Indian art: boomerangs, rhombuses, sun discs surrounded spinning rays, wing shapes, jawbones, ragged claws, and obscure pictographs."

Throughout his long career, Lobdel was never afraid to experiment and change. His later work replaced the somber blacks and thick impastos for a palate of brighter colors and totem like figures but was still focused on symbolic representations of humanity, and archetypal themes.

Lobdell received many honors and awards for his work, including the Nealie Sullivan Award, San Francisco Art Association (1960); Pew Foundation Grant (1986); and Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Painting (1988) and Academy Purchase Award (1992, 1994) from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York. In 1998 he was elected to the National Academy of Design.

Lobdell is survived by his wife, Virginia "Jinx" Rowan Lobdell; sisters June Skjervold and Phyllis Brussel; son Frank Saxton Lobdell of Minneapolis; and son Judson (Heather) and granddaughter, Charlotte, of Tiburon, Calif. He was predeceased by his sister Doris Olson.

A memorial service is planned for early next year and a memorial exhibition will open at Hackett | Mill, San Francisco, on May 16, 2014.


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