The painter Jan Frank has a reputation as a hard-drinking, if not hard-fighting, downtown playboy. He is known for his sharp suits and smoky drawl, his alpaca coat, and his fondness for the racetrack (he names his paintings after favorite horses). He tap-dances in his studio, painting to Al Green, Barry White, and Minnie Riperton. He trained among conceptual artists and now makes abstract art. He was a 1970s radical and has largely maintained that lifestyle while living on one of the most expensive blocks of real estate in New York City. He is known by the right people, but not by most people. “If I had to get a tattoo,” said Frank’s friend and supporter the style writer, man-about-town, and onetime Warhol buddy Glenn O’Brien, “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.”
Last year, Joseph Nahmad, a young art dealer interested in making intergenerational connections, put Frank in a two-person show with the late crushed-car sculptor John Chamberlain, with whom Frank had been friends. Chamberlain was represented by a single monumental sculpture, Frank by a suite of drawings inspired by Chamberlain’s aesthetic and made in homage to him. Nahmad’s decision to include Frank was yet another instance of an artist who had, in a sense, been hiding in plain sight being rediscovered. Frank lives and works in the same Bond Street loft he has occupied since 1978, the year he graduated from the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. Back then the neighborhood was tough and dingy. As New York has gentrified around him—units in the new Annabelle Selldorf–designed building down the block sell for as much as $7.75 million—Frank has continued to embody the paradigm of the New York painter, in the mold of de Kooning or Pollock: someone who has partied with just about everyone. Yet, despite a recent string of well-received solo shows outside of the United States—including exhibitions at Olsen Irwin Gallery in Sydney and the Merchant House in Amsterdam—and despite New York exhibitions at Postmasters, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Salvatore Ala, and Danese, he is still relatively unknown in the U.S. The question of why is a complicated one.
Frank was born to Dutch parents in Amsterdam in 1951 and lived in the Congo before moving to Detroit at age six. His family eventually settled in Wisconsin, where Frank attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison (and collaborated on several performance projects with fellow student Sherrie Levine) before moving to New York to attend the Whitney program. There he became close to the program’s director Ron Clark—with whom he made several films—and profited from his exposure to such teachers as Vito Acconci and Yvonne Rainer, whose influence led him to early experiments in video, performance, and site-specific art.
He sampled the nightlife of that distant era. “You could still just get every single artist in New York to fit into one bar—Max’s Kansas City or the Ocean Club,” he told me in his studio recently. “You could be there with all the major American artists of the time, whether Chamberlain or Donald Judd. It’s an amazing thing, looking back. I spent one night with just Julian Schnabel and Philip Guston. I was there for the Brice Marden–Julian Schnabel fistfight. I actually had dinner with Carl Andre the night he got out of jail. In the ’70s, as a young artist, your relationship to history was so close because the art world was small—you were all literally sitting at the same table. In reality I’m not that old, but everything moves so fast now and we are all so streamlined by amnesia that I do feel I come from a different place [than] most contemporary [artists].”
In the 1980s Frank experimented with various mediums, including sculptural video installations, before finding himself as an artist in the early ’90s. “I was very influenced by the time I had spent with Sherrie Levine, and though I never termed it ‘appropriation’ back then, that was exactly what it was, but using the immediate history of abstract painting rather than photography,” Frank said. “Levine is so important, as most artists are in a situation of unconscious appropriation, to bring that into consciousness, into debate.” He began to take favorite individual “lines” from painters he admired, whether de Kooning, Guston, or Louise Bourgeois, and, because he couldn’t afford canvas, project them onto plywood. “Plywood was the cheapest and best material I could find,” he said. The resulting works drew on the materiality—the thickness and texture—of that standard-issue lumber.
Frank’s work shifted again around 1997 with the death of de Kooning. “De Kooning was calling me quite a bit around 1978,” Frank said. “He’d be all shit-faced and really just wanting to speak Dutch with a fellow artist. I was the youngest artist at his funeral, sitting next to Larry [Gagosian] and Chuck [Close]. That very afternoon I decided to start working with the female form, but along minimalist principles. It was 25 years since I had drawn a nude and now I was really using the model to get my own language, my own symbols, my own iconography, trying to get these ‘lines’ from the female nude as an alphabet for my new paintings. The female nude seemed the most conventional, obvious thing—part of this historical tradition.”
Around this time Frank also began using Dutch linen papers, from a windmill in Holland, to produce large Xerox drawings based on van Gogh haystacks. As Miety Heiden, senior vice president of Sotheby’s and a longtime admirer, said, “Jan is actually a very Dutch artist, coming out of a long tradition that embraces Rembrandt, say, as much as Mondrian, and despite his New York persona there is a much older and deeper and perhaps more serious historical grounding to his work.”
Frank went on to produce a series of paintings based on Henry Kissinger’s trademark spectacles, using images taken from Guston’s 1971 “Poor Richard” series of caricatures of Nixon and his cabinet. At the Four Seasons restaurant, Kissinger posed before one of those abstracted portraits. In 2009, Frank briefly ran a gallery, BLT on the Bowery, a few blocks from his loft where he showed, among other things, recent monotypes by Picasso’s one-time lover, Françoise Gilot. The short-lived gallery had an iconoclastic spirit. When the New Museum, across the street had its “Younger Than Jesus” triennial I co-curated, with Frank, a show of older artists called “Wiser Than God.”
One of Frank’s oldest friends is his Bond Street neighbor, Chuck Close, with whom he used to share a studio floor; “I have known Jan so long, some 40 years, and we always had a strong kinship with our shared love of Dutch artists, whether Vermeer or Frans Hals,” Close said. “Although what we each got from those artists was very different. Jan is like Willem de Kooning in so much as he is essentially a European painter, coming out of Cubism, but at the same time he is very much an American artist. In fact I used to work in a way very close to what Jan’s doing now; we do have that affinity, something that seems non-objective except that every line in that composition actually came from something living, from having a live model before you.”
But even longtime supporters like Close admit that Frank can be his own worst enemy. He has pulled stunts over the years that may have detracted from his marketability—whether going on a six-month alcoholic bender after 9/11 or engaging in a bottle-throwing fight with artist Jeff Koons. “He’s such an old friend, sometimes difficult or even self-destructive,” Close continued, “but with a great heart, a true spirit.”
When ARTnews went to press, Nahmad Contemporary was planning another Frank exhibition, this time a solo show, covering the last 25 years of his work, beginning with the plywood paintings of the ’90s and running right up through Frank’s new, large-scale abstract paintings and drawings derived from regular sessions with a live model. Meanwhile Frank has been gathering together an archive of his own imagery, so that in his newest paintings he can re-use elements of his previous work. Increasingly he’s using screenprinting to re-deploy his language of marks, but he continues to draw and paint from the nude. “This is all language to me. Everything I do is about language,” he said. “All the forms I have generated over the last 30 years, I feel I own them now.”
Adrian Dannatt is a London-born, Paris-based curator and critic.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 46 under the title “To Be Frank.”