Frank's world

MARY ABBE | Updated 8/17/2012

Panties- and penis-obsessed art iconoclast Frank Gaard becomes an elder statesman with a 40-year Walker retrospective.

There's nothing like doughnuts to defuse the reputation of a macho maniac.

There was Frank Gaard -- full-time painter, part-time philosopher and longtime artistic provocateur -- setting out a plate of fresh doughnuts as his wife, Pam, poured coffee on a recent morning in their cozy south Minneapolis bungalow.

The mint green walls were lined ceiling to floor with colorful portraits and paint-slathered 12-inch vinyl records beaming with images of pink ponies, polka dots and slogans. Few of Gaard's signature images of panties and penises were on view. Instead, the room had the happy air of a messy play school, burbling with pastel hues, oddball notes and smarty-pants jokes. A sign on the front step mentioned Heraclitus and Kierkegaard; a painting in the living room listed Gaard's top 10 poets, an eclectic lot that runs from Emily Dickinson through Nabokov and Mallarmé to Georges Bataille.

As Gaard, 67, prepared for this week's opening of a 40-year retrospective at Walker Art Center, he set his notorious past aside and took up the role of senior aesthete. Genially recounting his life story, he ruminated on the tough local art market and dipped into contemporary politics.

Disclaiming on color theory, he offered a pair of 3-D glasses to show a visitor how they made the pinks and greens in his pictures shimmer.

"Hey, we should hand these out at the Walker," he told the show's curator, Elizabeth Carpenter. She made no promises but allowed as how that might be possible.

"In the history of the Twin Cities art world, he's an iconic figure who has been a huge influence on generations of artists living here, and I want people to see what he's been doing lately," said Carpenter.

Gaard is probably best known for cheerfully cartoonish images of friends and local art luminaries whose exaggerated features are reminiscent of Andy Warhol's celebrities crossed with Alice Neel's expressionist portraits. Those grew out of huge cartoon pictures from the 1970s and '80s, vast canvases of Pinocchio-nosed, fat-lipped heads whose "Where's Waldo" density was an absurdist response to the fashionable abstractions of the time.

From 1974 to '94 he was also the impresario behind Artpolice, an underground 'zine that commented on art, wars, politics and life with a zany iconoclasm that City Pages once compared to "the scribblings on a choice stall of the men's room, though with a lot more polish."

To Carpenter his work represents "the underbelly" of modernism, that high-minded notion of art history as a steady march toward abstraction. As far back as the Renaissance there was a countertradition of grotesque, funny art which bubbled up again in Chicago in the 1960s when Gaard lived there.

"It's bizarre imagery, vulgar subject matter, and it all came to a head in the Pop Art movement, which has to do with comic book art and advertising imagery," Carpenter said. "This is all germane to Frank's practice ... although he operates on his own terms and doesn't identify with any movement."

None of that, however, quite nails Gaard's unique place in the Twin Cities art scene. For that, you have to turn to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he taught for 17 years before being dismissed in the mid-1980s for what a tactful divorce lawyer might call "cumulative incompatibility."

Even his most ardent admirers describe an eccentric instructor.

"His was the first class I ever had at MCAD," said Robert Corbit, a Vietnam vet who entered in 1973, the year the college moved into new quarters. "We were all sitting there and this guy comes in and starts ranting and raving about all the smells and strangeness in the new building. It went on for 45 minutes and we thought he was a student who had gone nuts. Finally we figured out that he was the teacher, and I thought that was just great."