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Jan Frank

by Adrian Dannatt
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A painting is a series of marks that join together to form an object or work over which one’s eye may freely roam.

-- Pierre Bonnard

The local legend of Jan Frank, a downtown Manhattan fixture, eternal resident of Bond Street where he forever walks his Labrador, chain-smoking Chinese cigarettes, resplendent in Ray-Bans and alpaca teddy bear coat, has oft obscured his actual oeuvre.

Luckily, the exemplary exhibition currently at Paul Kasmin’s annex gallery on West 27th Street, featuring a jewel-box room of drawings and one exceptional painting, here reminds us of just how refined -- dare one say “good” -- an artist Frank can be.

Ostensibly made over seven months (the show is titled “Seven Months”), these 40 works-on-paper were conjoured with varied inks, tips and nibs, along with correction-fluid whiteout, on luscious handmade rag stock from Indonesia and Holland. Gathered thus in their elegant ranks, these ethereal drawings, like neural nets suspended in a painter’s space, make a range of fluid associations between themselves and the history of art.

One would not need to know that Frank was the youngest person at Willem de Kooning’s funeral, or that he started this series of works at the same time that Brice Marden began using Chinese inks, or that he was then exhibiting alongside Christopher Wool, to divine such associations.

Frank is a big enough and a serious enough artist, with sufficient confidence in his own talent, to welcome rather than disparage such comparisons, and will happily admit his admiration for those artists, and many others, while never doubting the unique significance of his own work.

Frank’s “line,” however serendipitous and inspired by the chance operations we know from John Cage, has an ease, an absolute rightness to it, which seems somehow familiar when one first sees it, like a homecoming. It is complex while simple, straightforward yet sophisticated, with the instinctive harmony of the true artist’s deceptively easy gesture.

These drawings are inspired by sessions with six different life models, and one would not know this explicitly but rather by their inherent sensuality, the barely palpable presence of the naked body, a sort of subtle erotics all the finer for its discretion.

Frank has been drawing non-stop since he was a child in Amsterdam, his own father, a Dutch sea captain, being an amateur artist, but the sheer range and dexterity of his work has often been overlooked.

Thus as a young man who moved into his loft back in 1974, Frank was very much a part of the hard-drinking scene of elder artists at Max’s Kansas City, being especially close to Donald Judd, who was one of his first supporters. Frank was making video installation work, along with his close colleague Sherrie Levine, a striking combination of sculpture and video-imagery, of which even Leo Castelli remained a consistently curious fan.

Sabotaged by the rise of Neo-Expressionism, Frank has always been dogged by a certain shadow of bad luck, whether the closure of his longtime gallery, the revered Salvatore Ala, or the shock of 9/11 itself, after which Frank practically tried to drink himself to death, refusing to exhibit in New York galleries for over a decade.

Certainly Frank has always maintained a high-low sense of adventure, which fuels much of his fabled deadpan anecdotage, which includes tales of spending long evenings at Elaine’s (where Elaine always insisted he had the number one table reserved in his name whenever he so wished) and longer days locked up at the Bellevue “drunk tank” with homeless alcoholics.

He’s punched it out with Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, hung with Keith Richards, lost several fortunes on his obsessive horse betting, not least in Hollywood with Tony Curtis, shared a studio with Chuck Close, dated some of the art world’s most formidable beauties and became a millionaire launching the most famous restaurant in New Hampshire.

It’s entirely typical that when Frank started a series of semi-abstract works based on Henry Kissinger’s spectacles he should end up with the man himself at the Four Seasons happily posing in front of one of these same paintings.

Or that it was Frank’s own supply of aluminium which he offered to Cady Noland and James Siena, and thus launched both their subsequent careers in that medium.

But regardless of this rich personal history, as ripe with tragedy as victory, no matter what he went through, Frank always kept painting, seeing it as the most radical of all possible creative activites, the most radical because it is the most difficult.

Making a “great” painting of any variety is a very hard thing to do, was so, is so and will remain so, and we should not be shy of celebrating anyone capable of giving us such a gift, openly celebrating the sheer generosity and integrity of this act.

Jan Frank, “Seven Months,” May 19-June 18, 2011, at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 511 West 27th Street, New York, N.Y., 10001.

ADRIAN DANNATT is an art writer based in Paris.