NEW YORK - It’s hard to think of two more different artists: Helen Frankenthaler, the ultimate Uptown Girl of Dalton, Bennington and an apartment in the Carlyle; and Jean-Michel Basquiat, of downtown clubbing, graffiti and heroin addiction. Her career lasted more than 50 years; his was cut brutally short.
Helen Frankenthaler's Mother Goose Melody, 1958. © 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
And yet, these two talented painters had moments in their work where there was fascinating, suggestive overlap. Both are the subject of big, beautiful shows at Gagosian right now: Frankenthaler in the gallery’s 21st St. space, in the aptly named show "Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959“ (referring to her old studio); and Basquiat over in the gallery’s even bigger 24th street space.
John Elderfield, the former MoMA curator who put together the Frankenthaler show, gave me a tour earlier this month, and it was he who suggested the comparison. As Frankenthaler experimented with more figurative elements and more definable shapes, showing the influence of Arshile Gorky and others, on occasion the symbols and lines in her work edged over into graffiti territory. Then she made her famous turn toward more lyrical and abstract areas of color that she stayed with for decades.
Helen Frankenthaler's Mountains and Sea, 1952. © 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
Elderfield’s exhibition focuses squarely on the 1950s in her work—right out of the gate, Frankenthaler was making history. It’s sort of hard to believe, but everything in the show was painted when she was in her 20s. When she made the landmark work Mountains and Sea (1952), heralded for the stained canvas that helped jumpstart the entire Color Field movement (and included in this show), she was a ripe old 24.
All of Basquiat is early Basquiat, of course, since he died at 27. The Gagosian show is a museum-level look at his work, with over 50 paintings on loan from all over. The paintings are incredibly assured and always in-your-face, keeping you off balance as they draw you in. His famous quote is, “It’s about 80 percent anger.”
Frankenthaler lived a much different life and likely didn’t have the same kind of anger, but as Elderfield reminded me, she could be very tough and very determined. She abhorred the idea of being thought of as a “woman painter,” and set about playing in the big leagues with the guys right from the start. For Basquiat and Frankenthaler, the process of “making their mark” as young painters, literally and figuratively, was both fraught and immensely productive.