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."
Corbit, who is lending pieces to the Walker show, became a friend and one of Artpolice's core contributors. But they had a falling out when Corbit dated one of Gaard's ex-girlfriends. "I always thought he was a very gentle person, but there was a volatility there if you were on the wrong side of him," Corbit said. "But it was usually self-destructive."
Gaard himself describes those years as difficult. Born and raised in Chicago, he graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1967 and earned an MFA the following year from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He and his first wife had a son, Peter, in 1969 and he was soon teaching at MCAD. He was also trying to devise a way of painting that would be true to himself yet reconcile the art world's conflicting signals.
"I was trying to be in the imagistic world I'd grown up in, and the formalist abstract world of New York, and then the Walker's more rectilinear, architectonic form," he said. And he wanted to produce "breakthrough paintings, a key work that people could go to and unpack meaning."
Needless to say, the pressures were great and in 1974 he had the first of several mental breakdowns requiring months of hospitalization. With a diagnosis of being bipolar, he alternated between mania and depression for three years before stabilizing with medication that he still takes.
"Losing your mind is a peculiar phenomenon, especially for a person who is used to using it," he said. Studying psychology, mysticism and philosophy helped "rebuild my sense of equilibrium." A solo show of his work at the Walker in 1980 also reassured him that his art was respected.
"Emerson said life was mostly thinking and that's what painting became for me -- a way of thinking, whether about colors, animals or whatever," he said.
People who have commissioned Gaard's portraits rave about the experience. MCAD grad Gregg Zimmer never took a course from Gaard, but wanted his portrait done some years back when he couldn't afford the $700 rate at the time. So he asked for a half-portrait at half-price. Amused, Gaard took the challenge and ended up throwing in a "veterans discount," which brought the price down to about $300.
"I was there over two hours and it was the best two hours I'd spent talking to someone in years," said Zimmer.
Gaard's portraits of women are character studies with an emphasis on color, said Christi Atkinson, who has posed for him. "We all have a certain look," she said of the women. "We get strong noses and large breasts and we become very powerful with Frank. He goes for one facet of your personality or background."
He is also obsessed with panties, which he uses as a Duchampian shorthand for women, just as penises are his male signifiers, often with names attached (Bin Laden, Nixon).
Atkinson is lending to the Walker show a 4-foot-square painting called "A Map of My Pathetic Career on Panties." It depicts 25 fanciful undies, including a few male styles. Some are named for people (artist Sherrie Levine, former Walker director Kathy Halbreich) and others for galleries and institutions (Walker Art Center, Museum of Modern Art). Art savants can see connections, as when blood from the Barbara Gladstone Gallery panties drips into the Walker panties, alluding to the quantities of art that Richard Flood, a former Gladstone staffer, bought there for the Walker when he was the museum's chief curator in the 1990s.
"I love that, it's awesome," said Atkinson, who hangs the painting in her dining room. "It's not an uncomfortable painting for me at all. They're not sexualized panties. It just shows the kind of panties you imagine they would wear. It's his guess at their personality or their essence."
For all the audacity of his pictures and his past, Gaard now comes across as a thoughtful, even shy guy. Objecting to the cult of personality that often surrounds artists, he politely but firmly declines to be photographed in his home or studio.
"The emphasis should be on the work, not the image of the artist," he said. "If I'd chosen to be a performer it would be different, but I'm not that person. I'm not Prince."
The lighthearted quality of his recent work reflects his new contentment and a certain nostalgia. The pony paintings, especially, recall the cowboy films and TV shows of his 1950s childhood and are a "counterweight to the paintings I did 20 years ago when I was angry and upset and had two marriages crashing," he said. "I'm happy now and there's a yearning for lost places of childhood. There was something safe about school then, what the poets call the bower, the haven. That's what I tried to do as a teacher, to help people have a safe place."
As for the future, there are still a lot of things to paint, including maybe at least one more big breakthrough picture.
"I have gout and arthritis and can't hear so good, but I'm still Frank and I still think I'm a good artist," he said.