"Spots" by Bob Zoell at Boone Family Art Gallery

The installation of Bob Zoell's "Spots" at the Boone Family Art Gallery at Pasadena City College. (Courtesy of Eamon Conklin / January 1, 2000)

If you should wander into the Boone Art Gallery at Pasadena City College, you'll see a grouping of large paintings that, at first glance, could be the work of a child. So simple are the spare arrangements of different colored circles and ovals in the show “Bob Zoell — Spots,” that they look to be wholly capricious. In truth, they represent a phase in the life of an artist who put in hard work and analytic processes to arrive at that direct form of expression.

Like any good magician, Zoell isn't going to let his audience in on the tricks of his trade, and so he soft-pedals his methodology. “They're 70% design,” says the garrulous Zoell, as he walks around the gallery and gesticulates. “And they're 30% drawing. They have the ‘Bob Zoell attitude': they're whimsical, fun and light.”

Look at these spot paintings and circles and lozenges float randomly like planets … or do they? Back off and you may see a laughing dog or a bemused face in the cosmos. Art critic Peter Clothier has noted “Zoell's paintings speak to us not only out of the quiet of pure aesthetic contemplation, but also out of the disquiet of our human being.”

Zoell was one of a number of young illustrators that emerged in the late 1960s who mined traditional cartoon and animation styles to contemporary art application. With his comic insects and balloon-tired cars, Zoell's work looked like it came out of the Max Fleischer Studio — the home of Betty Boop.

Retired graphic designer and art director Archie Boston puts Zoell into perspective: “I've always admired Bob's commercial illustration work,” he says, from his Los Angeles home. “He was right up there with Charlie White and Dave Willardson. His work was fantastic.”

In 1970, having matriculated through the Saul Bass studio and established himself in the applied art world, Zoell got an itch to return to painting, an early love. “My two favorite artists,” he reveals, “have always been Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock. The Abstract Expressionists were my big influences. Barnett Newman's large zips got me looking at the rectangle and what you can do with it.”

A self-taught artist from Saskatchewan, Canada, Zoell grew up in a landscape of big skies and prairies, and of suspended cumulous clouds. “Being self-taught and learning academically is a 50/50 proposition,” he says. “You can learn a lot from your peers but the School of Hard Knocks is a pretty great school too.”

Artist Gary Panter contributed an appreciative essay to the Zoell show. He knew Zoell's magazine work from the late 1960s; that was well before Panter gave a visual brand to Pee Wee Herman and L.A.'s punk scene. Speaking from his home in Brooklyn, Panter observes, “By the time I moved to L.A. in 1976, I heard news that Bob had become a serious theoretical artist.”

The two have a long friendship and while Panter claims little Zoell influence on his work, Zoell readily credits Panter for changing his own. “I was a real regimented, anal formalist,” Zoell admits. “I liked the sense of play in Gary. He influenced me a lot.”

Panter discerns an arc in Zoell's work: “Bob took something very charming, artistic and commercial, and pushed it beyond the safe product into a more formally designed cubistic mode and a more minimal mode.”

That sensibility seeped into the larger visual culture, sometimes with surprising reactions. When a new design for the Volkswagen Beetle appeared about five years ago, the plump volumes and contours looked more like one of those cartoon cars of the '30s than actual automobiles ever have. The new “Bug” looked just like a Zoell design.

“Ha!” shouts Zoell, “I never thought about that, but you may be right — it's a fun car. I think it was done by somebody at Art Center. I like it because it's an example of nice, clean design.”

Panter remarks on Zoell's legerdemain: “Bob's work in any of its guises is very seriously designed. It's always got some link to formalist minimal design. But even when he's being silly you can sense a high aesthetic intelligence behind the scenes.”

What: “Bob Zoell — Spots”

Where: Boone Family Art Gallery, Pasadena City College, 1570 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

When: Through Dec. 14. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving weekend.

Contact: (626) 585-3285

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KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.