For the late Frank X. Tolbert 2, pencils and paintbrushes were not just tools. They were weapons, a sort of amulet, or better, milagro: a defense, against mortality, in favor of life and love and the power of creativity.
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, an object of worship and protection. They float in a school, as the artist depicts himself swimming through a sea of pencils. They are holstered like daggers or arrows, as the artist, who frequently referred to himself as X2, rides on a horse (in the Year of the Horse) like a marauding native warrior protesting the development of McMansions on his beloved White Oak Bayou.
Francis Xavier Tolbert 2 was a renowned Texas artist who, without warning, exited this world from his Houston Heights home one afternoon last July. 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 influence of Diego Rivera, Philip Guston, and H.C. Westermann.
For instance, Continental Club Red, Glover Gill Solo and its companion piece in blue, both from 2011, are tight, rhythmic works crowded with dancers, the pianist Glover Gill, a waitress, and other identifiable characters who frequented the dance floor on the Monday nights devoted to tango at the downtown Houston club. There Frank and his beloved wife, the artist Ann Stautberg, danced regularly; in the piece, they are depicted in close embrace. They were partners for 45 years.
In these selected works they often appear, not just dancing through life but facing mortality together. Frank, though strong in body and spirit, suffered repeated bouts of ill health. In We All Have To Dance With The Reaper, from 2013, Frank and Ann, in profile side by side, look on as a whirlwind/waterspout bears down through the waves. The skull of death gazes with empty black eyes from the opposite 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 currently on view date from 1990, beginning with the Dream Series, which includes, among others, Big City Turn Us Loose, a work in charcoal and graphite on paper. A pencil cross serves as the central image; hands are raised (including fingers crossed) as the couple, drawn in profile, contemplates moving from big city Dallas to the Texas coast.
Another in the 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 oil-on-paper color piece from 1993, the enigmatic Funeral for a Flatfish, (a fish which actually does have migrating eyes), features a flat, wooden fish-shaped coffin with eyeholes. It was done after the couple moved to Galveston.
But in the meantime, there was the Loteria, an ancient Mexican card game. In 1992 Frank interpreted in oil on paper the entire deck of 54 images, of which El Valiente (the brave man) and La Muerte (death) are on view.
The Galveston coast was a major influence, as well as a healthy, happy place, at least for a while. With the help of a Chinese medical doctor, Frank recovered from the kidney damage caused by American blood pressure medicine, and by 1994 the artist was on fire, wielding his brush and palette like a sword and shield, as wildly depicted in Artist on Fire.
By 2001 the couple was in Houston, dancing and making art in their studio home in the Heights. But after many productive years, Frank developed hepatitis, from which he eventually recovered. By late 2013, seemingly as a relief, Frank began to focus on, even identify with, the beauty and character of birds, which resulted in the highly interpretive, colorful, and empathetic Texas Bird Series of prints published by Flatbed Press in Austin. The show includes two studies as well as some finished prints: Chicken Hawk, a diving predator, and Black Necked Stilt, gracefully stepping through Texas spider lilies like a dancer.
The show includes some 33 pieces, among them three small black sculptures from 1999, Paintbrush Crosses, which are paintbrushes crossed with pencils and topped, in one case, with human hair. 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.
And it is uniquely Texan: prickly, edgy, large and romantic, spanning the mythic landscape from oyster shells and seabirds to desert cacti and peyote, witches and virgins, watching eyes and anxious cigarettes, fate, love, life, sex, and death.
Frank X. Tolbert 2: Selections from the Studio is on view at Andrew Durham Gallery in Houston through February 17, 2024.