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Frank Lobdell


August, 1957

Oil on canvas
71 x 61 in. (180.34 x 154.94 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation

The painting of Frank Lobdell epitomizes the strain of San Francisco abstract expressionism furthest from the New York School. Slow and deliberate rather than brash and impulsive, Lobdell’s brooding art is the very antithesis of the rapid-fire gusto of action painting. One of the many World War II veterans who attended the California School of Fine Arts, he was immediately drawn to the antidecorative assault on “good taste” exemplified by the canvases of Clyfford Still, who taught at the school from 1946 to 1950. It was Still’s “willingness to use something really raw and brutal,” another ex-GI explained, that appealed to the war-hardened veterans.

Lobdell took the “substance and guts” of Still’s rugged paint handling, but employed it toward radically different ends. Whereas Still aimed to create an exultant “psychic entity” denoting self-liberation, Lobdell viewed the human condition as an endless struggle for meaning. He expressed that struggle not through turbulent gesture, but through forms burdened, as art historian Herschel Chipp described them, “with the agony of a human organism confronted with an environment that offers little that is certain—no horizon, no gravity, no substance.”

Lobdell’s worldview was closely allied with postwar existentialism’s search for life’s meaning in the face of emptiness. August, 1957 is a haunting example of the “black paintings” he began in the late 1950s, featuring vaguely figurative forms rising from a dark morass pockmarked with in finite voids. The series is an homage to the black murals Francisco Goya created in the last years of his life—emblematic of the Enlightenment’s “sleep of reason,” which Lobdell felt characterized his own time a century and a half later. In the late 1950s, black expressed the gloomy years of the McCarthy era, when blacklists came to symbolize the conformism and conservatism of the age.

Susan Landauer

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