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Canvasing the Century

'Picasso to Thiebaud' displays a wealth of 20th-century art at Stanford's Cantor Center for Visual Arts

By Michael S. Gant

TWO MORE disparate art works can hardly be imagined than David Hockney's Interior With Sun and Dog, which dominates one doorway at the Cantor Center main gallery, and Joseph Cornell's Untitled (Constellation), a surprise tucked away near the other entrance. That they manage to co-exist illustrates the expansiveness of 20th-century art on display in the new exhibit "Picasso to Thiebaud."

Hockney's large (5 feet by 6 feet) oil on canvas from 1988 vibrates with color. The corner view of a high-beamed room sets the eyes to full twitch mode with a floor full of energized orange stripes converging at sharp angles, like op art done without the ruler. A bright red, round table and some loopy, cartoonish furniture dominate the foreground. A window looks out on a lushly stroked jungle of curving green palm fronds. The only spot of repose is a wiener dog snoozing away in the lower-left corner. Here is true "irrational exuberance."

The Cornell construction, done in the late '50s, takes you unawares because it isn't pictured in the catalog for the show. The sense of discovery fits with the reclusive artist's hermetic ways. This hand-fashioned box, like a vitrine in the museum of a lost city, contains objects that Cornell, a compulsive devotee of detritus, used again and again.

The back of the box is pasted over with a map of the zodiac. From a metal rod hang a ring draped with a bit of chain, and two white wooden cylinders. Below sit some private flotsam that caught the artist's eye: a compass, a fragment of a clay pipe, a sliver of decaying timber with protruding nails. Peering into this miniature world offers a view that opens up into the vastness of both space and memory.

The 60-plus works on view follow a chronological path from Picasso's 1901 Courtesan With a Hat to the marvelously fractured Cubist Médrano Circus--Study by Fernand Léger (1918) through Roy Lichtenstein's iconic--and pop ironic--Brushstroke (1965) all the way to Sean Scully's 2002 oil on linen Pink Wall of Light a patterned plane of interlocking rectangles of freely brushed muted grays, blacks and tans outlined with flecks of red.

But because the show depends upon the taste and finances of the Stanford alumni and friends who loaned the works, no real theme emerges, except maybe an emphasis on California artists. Luckily, the pieces are so individually strong that they don't suffer from the lack of a curatorial framework.

Among the many highlights is a fine example from the heyday of California assemblage. Bruce Conner's ALTARPIECE (1961) combines tangles of lace and shards of mirror encrusted with rivulets of melted candle wax, like a deserted, crumbling church in a Gothic tale by Faulkner. Conner fancies castoff junk as much as Cornell, although he imbues it more with menace than nostalgia.

Bay Area master Nathan Oliveira's Standing Man With Stick II (1959) hovers between the figurative and the abstract. A featureless man, built up with heavy ridges of pigment like tiny mountain ranges, is caught in a storm of gray-green paint strokes leading to a plume of blue pigment rising from the head.

Most impressive, for both its epic scale and stunning contrast of darks and lights, is Frank Lobdell's Fall 1980. In the upper left, a rectilinear spiral the color of blood rises like a mutant sun over an arching slab protruding from below. At first, this towering shape appears to be a void, a doorway to a black hole, but soon a multitude of complex deep browns and maroons reveal themselves.

Lobdell, who taught at Stanford for many years and is still active, is also represented upstairs in the Cantor's permanent collection and is the subject of an excellent major volume, Frank Lobdell: The Art of Making and Meaning (Hudson Hills Press), released last fall. A major force in the San Francisco abstract expressionist movement after World War II, he remains a painter of exceptional power and inventiveness.

Picasso to Thiebaud shows through June 20 at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University. The center is open Wednesday-Sunday. Admission is free. (650.723.4177)

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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