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For the late Frank X. Tolbert 2 pencils and paintbrushes weren’t just tools. They were weapons or amulets, if you prefer. milagro: a defence, against mortality, for life and love, and the power of creative imagination.
The pencil and paintbrush appear frequently in Tolbert’s works selected for a memorial exhibition on view at Andrew Durham Gallery in Houston. They form a cross as an object of worship and for protection. They float on a school floor as the artist swims through a sea full of pencils. They are holstered as daggers or bows as the artist (who often referred to himself by the name X2) rides a horse in the Year of the Horse like a marauding Native warrior protesting the development of McMansions in his beloved White Oak Bayou.
Francis Xavier Tolbert was a renowned Texas Artist who, without warning, Exit this worldFrom his Houston Heights home on a July afternoon. Born in 1946 in Washington, D.C., apparently with a pencil in his hand, Frank grew up in Lubbock and Dallas, where his famous father — traveling around the state with young Frank on board — wrote a column about Texas for the Dallas Morning News. That narrative and cultural influence survived in Frank’s expressive, frequently autobiographical paintings and drawings that also make use of Texas and Mexican myth and imagery. They reflect the influences of Diego Rivera, Philip GustonH.C. Westermann
You can, for example, Glover Gill in Continental Club RedBoth the blue companion piece and the red one, both from 2011, are tight rhythmic works filled with dancers, pianist Glover Gill and a waitress who were regulars on the dance floor of the downtown Houston club’s Monday nights dedicated to tango. Frank and his beloved Ann Stautberg danced there regularly. In the piece, they’re shown in a close embrace. They were partners for over 45 years.
In these selected works, they appear often, not only dancing through life together but also facing mortality. Frank, although strong in body, spirit and mind, suffered from repeated bouts with ill health. In We all have to dance with the ReaperFrom 2013, Frank and Ann are seated side by side as a whirlwind/waterspout roars through the waves. The skull of Death stares at you with black, empty eyes on the other side.
The exhibition was organized by Ann and gallery owner Andrew Durham, who has mounted several shows of Frank and Ann’s work in recent years. The oldest pieces on display date back to 1990, starting with the Dream SeriesThe list includes, but is not limited to, Big City Turns us LooseA work in charcoal and graphite. A pencil cross is the central image. The hands (including crossed fingers) are raised as the couple in profile contemplates moving away from the big city Dallas and towards the Texas coast.
Another in the Series Dream Series, Migrating Eyes, surreally depicts in black and white the artist almost as a kind of blind astronaut, half submerged in the sea, anxiously reflecting on the decision to move to the coast, with the competing image of Big Bend’s Mule Ears peaks on his chest. A later color oil-on-paper piece from 1993, the enigmatic Funeral for a FlatfishThe coffin is flat and fish-shaped, with eyeholes. It was done after they moved to Galveston.
But there was also the LoteriaA Mexican card game. In 1992 Frank translated in oil on the paper the entire 54-image deck. El Valiente(the brave man ) La Muerte (death) are on view.
Galveston, Texas, was a place of inspiration and happiness, at least temporarily. Frank recovered from kidney damage caused by American high blood pressure medication with the help of a Chinese doctor. By 1994, the artist was on the move, wielding a brush and palette as a sword and a shield, as shown in Artist on Fire.
By 2001, the couple had moved to Houston and were creating art in their studio in the Heights. Frank was diagnosed with hepatitis after many productive and creative years. He recovered. Frank, in late 2013, began to focus and even identify with the beauty of birds. This resulted into the highly interpretive and colorful work. Texas Bird Series Flatbed Press in Austin published prints. The show includes both two studies as well some finished prints. Chicken Hawk, a predator that dives, and Black Necked Stilt, gracefully dancing through Texas spider-lilies.
The show includes about 33 pieces including three small black statues from 1999. Paintbrush CrossesThis show is not a retrospective of Tolbert’s vast career but a lovingly selected tribute of works, some of which have never been shown or even stretched on a frame. This show is not a retrospective of Tolbert’s vast career but a lovingly selected tribute of works, some of which have never been shown or even stretched on a frame.
It is a uniquely Texan experience: prickly and edgy; large and romantic. It spans the mythic landscape of oyster shells, seabirds, desert cacti, peyote and virgins. There are also watching eyes, anxious cigarettes, fate and love.
Frank X. Tolbert: Selections from StudioThe exhibition is currently on view Andrew Durham GalleryHouston is open through February 17, 2020.