Another local painter, Melissa Stang, didn't get along with Gaard in the early 1980s when she was one of his students, feeling that she was excluded from a kind of "boys' club." Yet she says that eventually she would find him to be a tremendous influence. "He would set up these wildly colorful backdrops for human figures we would paint," says Stang, "so we got into doing it with a lot of color. It made us think about the entire picture. And a lot of the time he'd read to us while we painted. Philosophy, mostly. I remember he was really into Nietzsche."
In the meantime, Artpolice earned Gaard notice and some detractors, too. Though a handful of local women artists contributed to Artpolice in its heyday--Ruthann Godollei and Stang are two who continue to live and work in town--many others were offended by the occasional preoccupations of the underground comics aesthetic. They objected most strenuously to some raw depictions of sex, sex organs, bodily functions, and all things related to bodily functions--though it must be said these images made up a small part of the 30 to 40 pages in a typical edition of the zine.
In the collection of fragile egos that is the local art scene, it was only a matter of time before Gaard's tell-it-like-it-is persona brought him up against more serious trouble. The showdown occurred back in 1986 with the run of an exhibition celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Minnesota Artists' Exhibition Program (MAEP) at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). Included among the nearly 200 works of art by 85 artists were some images from Artpolice. On one of the pages, Gaard had painted a tiny moustache on a picture of surrealist prankster Marcel Duchamp, one of his artistic heroes. It was meant as a kind of tribute to an image Duchamp had made by painting a moustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa.
"That's the essence of Frank," says Stuart Turnquist, the longtime director of the MAEP. "He had to do Duchamp one better, even several decades later...Unfortunately, someone came through [the gallery] and thought it was Hitler."
A story that ran in the Star Tribune, dated April 6, 1986 and written by Mary Abbe Martin, called these Artpolice drawings "juvenalia [directed] at everything society reveres--women, children, sex, politicians, religion, artists." Artpolice had been distributed and shown locally for more than 12 years without causing an outcry of this sort. In fact, the zine was attracting a growing fan base here, in New York, and especially in Europe. The article described the controversy and resulting protests, but, tellingly, it did not bother to describe any of the images in the show.
"The Anti-Defamation League decided to take a confrontational stance, not a conversational stance," Turnquist says. Other people, such as the Women's Art Registry of Minnesota, who'd previously been agitated by Gaard, took this opportunity to mount protests.
"They were meant to tarnish my reputation," says Gaard of the charges.
"Eventually there were a number of people in the Jewish community who saw the art and said it was not anti-Semitic," Turnquist says, "and so it became less of an issue. But for a time there were pickets in front [of the museum]. Some of the art in the galleries was marked, some vandalism....Because of this criticism, Frank was deeply hurt. I don't know how he resolved it finally, but it really hurt him." Turnquist adds that at the time, Gaard was married to a Jewish woman, was taking classes to convert to Judaism, and had two sons being raised Jewish. (Gaard has been married and divorced twice.) "It cut him deeply to be called anti-Semitic," Turnquist says.
A year or so later, Gaard was fired from the staff at MCAD, which has no tenure system to protect faculty. There were numerous reasons for the firing--by his own account, Gaard hardly went out of his way to get along--but the controversy made it easier for the college to rid itself of an artist who'd been something of a gadfly for 17 years. As might be expected with an incident that occurred 15 years ago, fellow faculty members vary in their assessment of what occurred. One retired peer mentioned Gaard's volatile behavior as a key factor. When contacted by phone and e-mail, the college itself declined to address the issue, though the dean of the college at that time, Aribert Munzner, says that the decision not to renew was not out of the ordinary and was made by a faculty-wide review committee. Munzner did go on to say Gaard was an "artist of amazing insight and fantastic power," though he would not comment on the quality of Gaard's teaching. (Legend has it that after his departure, Gaard continued to give lectures in his attic apartment, and that recordings of the talks were traded among his former students.)
"It was an ongoing thing," says Gaard in a distant voice. "It all boiled down to the fact that I had differences with faculty there, particularly the idea that they were not professional artists, and not exhibiting regularly--even though it was a criteria for employment....When evaluation time came up, I was in a weakened position.