Article by Glenn O’brien, NYC, 2013
Extraordinary rendition: Jan Frank and painting between the lines.
Only our surprise that the unforeseen was fated, allows the arbitrary to disappear. The delights and anguish of the paradoxes on this imagined plane resist the threat of paintings reducibility. The poise, the isolation of the image containing the memory of its past and promise of change is neither a possession nor is it frustrating. The forms, having known each other differently before, advance yet again, their gravity marked by their escape from inertia.
– Philip Guston
The energy and nature of human minds is so vigorous that they go on exerting themselves while awake by no adventitious impulse, but by a motion of their own, with a most incredible celerity. When these minds are duly supported by the physical organs and senses of the body, they see and conceive and discern all thing with precision and certainty. But when this support is withdrawn, and the mind is deserted by the languor of the body, then it is put in motion by its own force. Therefore, forms and actions belong to it; and may things appear to be heard by, and said to it.
--Cicero, On Divination LXVII
Divination forms a continuum, but we could say that at one pole there is “possession,” and at the other “reading.” By possession we mean that a god or some other spirit enters one’s bodya and takes control—voice, gestures, words—all belonging to the god. Reading is interpretive—that all the flowing occurrences of this world are a stream of messages. Somewhere in between, half possessed by fire, half swimming in a seat of total significance, there is inspiration. A fork in the path: one way leads to an image of the world as a book, as a riddle written in code, each occurrence a presage and glyph of the whole. The othe way leads to randomness, mere chance, forever beyond our grasp, casting a shadow of nihilism on an accidental universe. Either way, theology is unavoidable. But in the latter case the language is geometry and statistics, while in the former it is luck and power.”
--Dale Pendell, The Language of Birds, Some Notes on Chance and Divination
“Thirty seconds of revelation is worth a million years of know-nothings.”
--Gulley Jimson,The Horse’s Mouth, Joyce Cary
I don’t have a tattoo. I could never think of anything I wouldn’t get sick of. If I had to get a tattoo, I’d probably reproduce a Jan Frank drawing, maybe on my back or upper arm. Nobody would fuck with somebody with a tattoo like that. Or ask you what it means. They’d be afraid you’d tell them. And probably a tattoo like that would still look pretty good even if you lived to be 100. It would mean exactly what it meant originally, but probably even more, as there would be a lifetime beneath it to explain its cryptic variety.
For me there’s no art like painting. Now more than ever. Installations remind me of the cable guy. Most everything else looks too easy. I want to see the suffering and the gamble, see the sweat, smell the blood and feel the put up or shut up attitude. I want to inhabit the space between the lines where the real reading goes on. Art based on memes, metaphors or even complex ideas just aren’t going to hold up. It’s too literal or “post-literal.” It is too easily found out and then utterly useless. If it’s easily described, isn’t that enough.
Nobody has progressed beyond abstract painting. It’s the only art you can really spend your time on and not wind up knowing less than you did when you started. It is mandala, Rorschach, jazz and poetry. It is speculative aesthetics. Unsolicited testimony. Mojo workout.
Hand made art possesses a magic unavailable in the machine made product. It’s rooted in the inscrutability and sublime nature of imperfection. Anybody can push a button and generate a ready-made, anyone can take a great photo or casually orbit around the sun. But only an artist with a hand can do it wrong properly, and do it in contrarian fashion differently every time.
Jan Frank is not an abstract expressionist, no matter what the work looks like. His work is made by hand but also by mechanical means. It is made by addition, multiplication (silk screened brush strokes from his library of favorites by masters) and subtraction (it is made by spontaneity and by design.) Imagine Pollack meeting Warhol’s Diagram paintings. It is made by a process or processes, but that is more important to Frank than to any of us. The process is for the artists to know; for us it’s enough to know the work. Even the artist might like to forget how he got there.
Let’s quote Philip Guston again: “John Cage once told me, ‘When you start working everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.’”
Although Jan Frank’s processes are complex, and may even seem dramatic (I can think of no other abstract artist who employs nude models), they don’t really matter to anyone but him. He is getting at something that matters to him, but essentially what matters is the painting or drawing itself. He could keep his process secret (which I’m all for—and I won’t tell) and it wouldn’t really matter except for the people who write reviews and press releases. (Which are universally increasingly awful.)
What is important is what happens when you look at the work. You can really enter these paintings and travel through them, returning again and again for a different experience. They have depth and a temporality that is illusory but effective. Watching them sit still you move, you go places, different places each time. The viewer has room to maneuver, on proxy trips from subatomic cloud chambers to alien calligraphy to gene splice trickery to cartoon aura renderings of pre-Columbian gods to the tracks of your tears. It is all of the above; it is none of the above. Here is work against logic, against rhetoric, against interpretation. You can call it abstraction with appropriation, but it sounds better if it’s abstraction with mugging. Although the paintings are delicate, airy, even minimal by Frank’s reckoning, they are also tough as nails and spider webs. Here is work that stands firm against the electronic and the digital. It is enigmatic without making claims of that sort.
The best abstract painters play with pareidolia. Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon in which the mind perceives images where there are none. Faces in the clouds, the man in the moon, canals on Mars. Apophenia is similar, “the unmotivated seeing of connections, especially the observation of patterns in random information. Apophenia is common among gamblers and diviners or soothsayers—those who took omens from the entrails of sacrificial victims or the flight patterns of birds.
Apophenia is also common among religious folk of the superstitious. It takes faith to see Mother Theresa in a raisin bun or Jesus on a piece of toast. Seeing what’s not there takes either faith or talent but usually not both.
Abstract art involves ways of seeing that are abnormal or atypical. What was once a detail become the deal. When the astronomers, astrologers and poets named constellations they were using an imaginative faculty and whether they were believers or not, the patterns simply became signifiers of an existing myth or story. Imagined images become entrances to an unknown narrative.
Both pareidolia and apophenia are wired into our brains. Facial recognition is our most primal human software—it is also present in other primates and various creatures to whom a symmetrical face might constitute a threat. A breakdown in pattern recognition, the inability to recognize faces, prosopagnosia, results from damage to the brain. The artist Chuck Close and the writer Oliver Sacks suffer from this condition, although it also seems to have inspired them—for Close it was a reason to paint faces.
Dale Pendell writes: “The reverse condition might be called hyperproso-pognosia. Excess of meaning…A polymorpous bead game in overdrive; all the meanings anticipated before the sentence is finished, questions and answers, call and responsed, uttered simultaneously. A diapason of lucid babble: Pentecost.”
Now let us consider this way of seeing liberated from divination and therefore from consequence. Imagine patterns chosen not because they are significant but because they are attractive or evocative, because they are ambiguous or contradictory, or simply because they seem to arise from a collaboration between refined taste and cortical imperatives. Perhaps painting gives us forms of divination that doesn’t rely on unreliable or extinct divinities, that are rooted in our mechanisms of perception . Even unbelievers need augurs; they have a future, even if they consider an afterlife something for sissies.
The augur knows the signs. The word come from augere—to increase, to augment, to honor or enrich, to exalt. The job, for two thousand years exiled to the sideshow, is now even there discredited and has fallen to the artist though he or she may not know it.
Jan Frank constructs fields of vision. They may look improvised, and there is improvisation involved, but also a long process of considered work creates the finished work. The sculptor George Sugarman put it like this, in a 1965 oabek discussion with Philip Pavia who aimed to set spontaneity and design at odds.
Pavia: “To design is immoral, because the artist doesn’t follow his conscience.”
Sugarman: “By design you mean a preconception from which you work. Now, suppose I have an idea of a form which I want to get. It might take me a week, two weeks, a month to get it. All that time, am I being spontaneous? …A spontantous idea, especially in sculpture, must be executed. That means keeping that idea spontaneous for six moths. When I am working there is a question not of spontaneity and design, but of being in touch all the time with the original intuitive idea.”
While Frank’s work may appear spontaneous, the way Pollack’s does, it is actually spontaneity refined and perfected. It recalls William Wordsworth’s definition of poetry: “I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”
Jan Frank is not an action painter. He’s an action/reaction painter. I like that idea. It puts the abstract artist above the fevered, booze swilling shaman/psychopath role that has become a cultural cliché and replaces it with a sort of persistent craftsman who may have oracular gifts but keeps them on the down low and works professional hours not when the muse howls. Painting must defend its mysteries, but in the end it’s a tough every-day job and somebody has to do it.
“Nature is a haunted house,” said Emily Dickinson, “but Art is a house that tries to be haunted.” And as Dr. Peter Venkman said in Ghostbusters, “let’s show this bitch how we do things downtown.”
by Adrian Dannatt
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 Bonnar
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 Mardenbegan 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.
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.
Of Cupcakes and Condos: The Onetime Editor at Large of ‘Open City’ Returns to New York
And finds it much changed
By Adrian Dannatt • 04/17/13 12:59pm
The morning after I arrived in New York last month for a week’s visit—the city had been my longtime home until three years ago, when I moved to Europe—I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see the extraordinary new video Street by James Nares. A set of continual tracking shots of New York life, it was shot from a moving car, using a technique whereby each person captured on camera becomes a sort of extreme slow-motion three-dimensional Everyman—a flicked cigarette is as poetic in its eternal arc as flapping birds. A dazzling hour of audio-visual meditation, it is particularly suited to anyone who’s just disembarked from a plane and wants to plunge immediately into the city. Mr. Nares told me that he wished he had made such a video when he first arrived here, back in the mid-1970s. Seeing Street prompted me to take the city’s pulse, note its shifts, lament what’s been lost in the time since I lived here.
It seemed appropriate to do so in the pages of The Observer, my lifeline to New York when I found myself stranded in Milan in the 1990s, laboring as editor of the magazine Flash Art. I would sneak off to the café every morning with my precious copy of the paper and sit with the inevitable espresso, sipping with wry regret at the news of all-too-distant Gotham, until my furious boss would burst through the door shouting in his apoplectic and comically accented English, why I was not at work.The excitement of this city still rings out with the very first announcement of its name at Heathrow, where I was thrilled to hear, among a request for passengers to present themselves to the departure desk, “Mr. Brice Marden, Mr. Marden please.” Reading on the plane of the recent death of Mayor Koch, I realized that many of my favorite friends in the city belong to that last great generation that was already living there when Mr. Koch took over in 1978, the “pre-Koch” posse of urban warriors who knew downtown when it really was “down” in all its now-unimaginable gorgeous poverty.
I stayed with one of them, the fabled artist Jan Frank, in his untouched loft on Bond Street, one of those few remaining absolutely authentic spaces, as far from the real estate agent fantasy of “artist’s loft” as a cupcake is from a crack vial, a place from which to step out and survey the ravages of gentrification on the surrounding block. Jan was busy mounting a group exhibition about the 1970s for the gallery White Box, and his neighbor from across Bond came over the cobbles—the impeccable veteran Minimalist Stephen Rosenthal, with his elegant striped canvases from that era and tales of the artist’s co-op in which he’s lived forever. Joseph Kosuth used to be there way back in the ’60s, and they still have the now-elderly art student once shot by Chris Burden as part of a performance, the sort of celebrity who would hardly past muster at the Herzog & de Meuron condo next door.
Best of all are tales of Doug Ohlson, last of the old-skool boozer abstractionists, who used to be so drunk he would get stuck in the fancy tree installed outside by developers, jammed in the unexpected branches with his bottle, and who came to his end on the pavement outside the latest luxury shoe boutique. This was Carl Andre’s great drinking buddy, the man he is said to have called after Ana Mendieta fell to her death—try telling that to the sippers of “locally sourced milk” at The Smile.
The particular sense of loss and promise that seems uniquely generated by Manhattan is the source of much of its cultural mythology. The long battle between ancient and modern is more acute here than anywhere else, the lust for destruction, for immediate profit, overwhelming heritage. Thus I had to note, with a shock akin to a missing limb, the shuttered door of the Grandaisy Bakery on Sullivan Street and, even more brutal, the transformation of Gino into a shiny emporium selling spotlit gourmet cupcakes, an extreme contrast with the osso buco chiaroscuro and shuffling Sicilian waiters of the good old days. I peered for the faintest trace of that famous zebra wallpaper, any slightest vestige of that historic interior—gone, only its echo at Royal’s townhouse on Archer Avenue remaining now.
Thank the primeval Lords of Unrule that at least the Subway Inn around the corner remains unchanged. There a stiff bourbon mit chaser ushered out any lingering miasma of nostalghia, for how easily at that notoriously sticky beer-stained counter could one become like that perfect elder WASP recently met, now in permanent exile on his Newport estate, who explained to me why he could never return to New York, had not set foot in the place in over 50 years: “You see I knew the city in its very greatest years, in the ’50s and early ’60s, so it would be simply too devastating for me to ever have to see it as it is today.”
In the city’s museums, too, I felt a sense of loss. In the Met’s wondrous new American wing, I was dismayed to discover that the great painting The Quartette by my famous relative William Turner Dannat, an imposing salon piece that used to dominate a wall, had been stripped of its period frame and stuck in open storage, where one can contemplate its fall from grace through glass like some once-proud beast in zoo captivity. I was heartened, though, at the Frick, by an impeccable exhibition of Impressionist prints and drawings from the Clark Art Institute, including some gathered by Robert Sterling Clark himself in Paris after WWI, like works from the Degas studio sale that he attended.
The contrast between the pleasures of the Frick and MoMA down the road could not be more extreme, the latter having seemingly turned into a processing machine for mass tourism with a density of crowds and confusion to rival Toys ‘R’ Us at Christmas, vast packs of wilding youth barely checked by a “security” force more suited to a high-security prison. MoMA makes clear what happens when a museum becomes an obligatory destination for every out-of-town visitor and every grade of schoolchild, a sort of object lesson in the frightening furthest limits of “democracy.” (Admissions figures at MoMA are surely significant, for even if not everyone pays the full $25, the sheer millions of visitors must add up to a pretty serious annual total.) The main activity at MoMA would seem to be texting—every gallery is dense with shoe-gazing teens on their gadgets, tapping out aphorisms to each other, a dense mass of incessant typing through which it is almost impossible to clear a path. Yet among all this horror, the curatorial chops have never been better—there was a cracking small show on genius junkie designer Robert Brownjohn and his Goldfinger title sequence, and some clever soul had at last taken Pavel Tchelitchew’s painting Hide and Seek out of storage and installed it at the top of an escalator, where it gathers as many admiring crowds, and quite rightly, as when it was the museum’s No. 1 attraction.
After battling through tour groups and what appeared to be entire Midwestern football teams enraged on Red Bull, I emerged on the top floor to almost certainly the greatest exhibition ever assembled on the history of nonobjective art, “Inventing Abstraction.”
DESPITE MY PENCHANT for New Yorkers of a certain battered vintage and my regret for the inevitable destruction of so many of my own landmarks (where are you now, Tepper auction house; come back, Spring Street Books), my instinctive suspicion of today’s jeunesse dorée was allayed by an impeccable dinner hosted by my friends Sage Mehta and Michael Robinson. In an Upper West Side penthouse duplex were gathered a fresh intellectual cabal, the editors of The American Reader. Witty, caustic, Ivy League, preposterously over-informed and entirely under 30, I found them utterly impressive, especially as they had never so much as heard of the Manhattan literary magazine Open City, of which I was editor at large for some 20 years and whose demise was so relatively recent.
Yes, some of the table banter was blushingly self-conscious in a manner akin to the Worst of Simon & Garfunkel—“Can analysis be worthwhile? … is the theater really dead?”—and yes, we did actually start discussing Franny and Zooey at one point, but I liked the retro whiff of such earnestness.
All seemed to be going well until I mentioned my personal time machine for retrieving the real old New York, which included my recent visit to a triple bill of 1933 movies at Film Forum, happily packed with those cinéastes of yesteryear loudly opening their Tupperware boxes of food, rustling wrappers, discussing Nova Pilbeam. I also mentioned the magical underworld of the city bus, now seemingly as antiquated as horse-drawn carriages, which plunges one back into a New York as rough and tough as The Panic in Needle Park, a sort of mobile hospital unit filled with those delicious dregs of the city one used to be able to see on 42nd Street.
Maybe it was my description of one fellow crosstown rider as a “monster” that occasioned a sudden explosion of fury from the previously engaging young editress at my side. Hence I was roundly denounced for being “privileged” in my assumptions, not only as a white male but as a wealthy heterosexual member of a dominant class, though how she deduced this from my mere presence remained a mystery. My passing reference to my own personal cowardice as my being a “pussy” was also roundly condemned, indeed was brought to a sort of kangaroo court as my assailant announced, “There are four women around this table and none of them will allow your use of such a term,” a condemnation of which the others seemed less certain. In the end, somewhat shell-shocked, I came to realize that this was just another sort of induction into another sort of élite, the latest equivalent of frat hazing, and that I too could now imagine what it would be like to have just graduated in semiotics at Brown or gender studies at Wellesley, a rather thrilling sense of almost cross-dressing, the decades falling away from me to reveal the eager intellectual neophyte I secretly still remain.
Inspired, exhausted, practically physically transformed into an entirely righteous 22-year-old radical bluestocking, I staggered back to Newark Airport from a week in surely still the greatest city in the world, swinging my complimentary tote bag from designer Stefan Sagmeister’s show at the Jewish Museum, on which he’d emblazoned, NOW IS BETTER.