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by Peter Plagens
Walter Gabrielson, who died Nov. 12, 2008, in Santa Barbara, Ca., of complications from a rare form of anemia, at the age of 73, was the best draftsman and one of the best college art teachers around. If the fact that Walter was the best friend I ever had renders these judgments a little suspect to some, well screw it; I’m right.

I met Gabrielson in 1963 when, between years in grad school, I went back to Southern Cal to see if I could reclaim my old undergrad job in the psych department, drawing "stimuli" for "social intelligence" tests to be used by the Navy to see what kind of crew members could get along confined in submarines. Walter -- dog in the manger -- had taken my job. Fortunately, the project had grown enough to require two cartoonists. I settled into an adjacent cubicle. Thus began a drawing war of insulting cartoons folded into paper airplanes and sailed over the inter-cubicle wall. I loved the guy.

In 1969, after I’d been teaching in Texas and living for a bit in Europe, Walter got me a job (those were the days when a friend could get you a job) teaching with him in L.A. at what was then San Fernando Valley State College. (Now it’s Cal State, Northridge.) We shared an office and became known -- mostly favorably among the students, mostly unfavorably among the rest of the faculty -- as "The Pete ’n’ Wally Show." I was the aggressive, dogmatic abstract-painter-Artforum-writer "issues" fellow. (I’d contracted from John Coplans the idea that what good contemporary artists were supposed to do was to deal with "issues" left on the table by previous artists who’d dealt with "issues" left on the table by artists previous to them, and so on.) Walter was the "find out who you are first, then do art from that," unfashionably-social-comment painter. I’d go to New York three times a year, hobnob with the Artforum crowd, have a few drinks at Max’s Kansas City, visit some gritty post-Minimalist artists’ studios, and come back to Northridge with The Word. Walter would fly his little Aeronca Champion (later a Thorpe DB – 5) around the country to visit small-city museums and see paintings by Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. He’d come back with a shitload of remarkable drawings. (Anyone who has a copy of one of  Gabrielson’s two books of airplane drawings -- done by his alter-ego, "Pop Dawson," proprietor of Dawson Aircraft, whose motto, a parody of Zenith’s, was "The name goes on before the quality falls off" -- owns a real treasure.)

We shared a 3,000-square-foot amenity-less day studio in Pasadena for nine years, until I left Northridge in 1978. Walter, who played a mean piano and had forgotten more about classical music and jazz than I’ll ever know, was in charge of the sound system, such as it was: his huge, reel-to-reel tape recorder. In return, I got to keep all mail put through the slot addressed to "Occupant." We never argued about art, only whether a shot had clipped the edge of the ping-pong table he’d lugged up to the studio, or whether the cue ball had struck the wrong ball first in a game of coin-table pool at the really derelict Club 11 bar across the street. (The deceptively graceful, cherubic-physiqued, bearded-sea-cap’n Gabrielson was way better’n me at both games.)

If Walter had come along as an "emerging artist" in these days of Lisa Yuskavage, Elizabeth Peyton, Dana Schutz, et al., he might have made a killing. But he was in his prime in L.A. in the ’70s when abstraction, light & space, and installation and performance were in charge in the art world we cared about. (Oddly -- but perhaps not -- fellow pilot and artist Jim Turrell liked Walter’s extremely dissimilar work enough to have a two-person show with him at the ARCO Center for Visual Art, then the primo "alternative space" in town.) A vicious mugging near his downtown studio and the heart attack he suffered in the aftermath got him a medical leave from Northridge (which, truth be told, had treated him badly all those years by refusing to promote him from tenured assistant professor because he was such a thorn in the side of the art ed and commercial art types). He never went back, settling in Santa Barbara with his wonderful wife, Nancy Goldberg, and trying to live off his art.

It wasn’t easy. He ended up doing most of his business from his website, with some of the usual unsalutary consequences of having to make some of his paintings too accessible. But if you look at any of his pictures closely, you’ll see some of the best shape composition you’ve ever seen, some of the best deceptively normalized color you’ll ever see, some of the best edges you’ll ever see, some of the loveliest paint application you’ll ever see. . . and some of the best insights into American life you’ll ever see. They’re perhaps a little Saroyanesque for today’s taste for nastier satire, but they’re empathetic, generous and light-hearted while still being art with a lot of gravitas to it. And Walter could always be a little off the wall. I’ve got a drawing by him of William Bendix that I wouldn’t give up for anything. Oh, maybe I’d lend it to whoever does that posthumous retrospective that Walter’s art so richly deserves.

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