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Oftentimes artists depict intimacy by using sexual motifs. Other times artists who run in the same social circles date and marry each other, like Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. Although these occurrences are common, platonic friendships within these groups are also a common occurrence that is overlooked and rarely talked about. But what is a platonic friendship? This kind of friendship can be defined as the relationship between two people who deeply care about each other, while no sexual feelings are involved. A close look at some of the most iconic friendships between artists in New York City during the 1960s present us with the perfect examples of platonic friendship and intimacy.
In 1879 Vincent van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo, in which he stated:
“Like everyone else, I have need of relationships of friendship or affection or trusting companionship, and am not like a street pump or lamp-post, whether of stone or iron…”
Van Gogh’s statement reminds us that artists, like everyone else, seek out companionship beyond the romantic or sexual kind of intimacy. However, the friendships that formed during the 1960s in New York City not only provided emotional support to the people who partook in them but they also forever changed the course of art history, as artists heavily influenced each other in their works and styles.
The friendship between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat is perhaps the most well-known one on this list. Although this friendship quickly turned into a mentorship, platonic intimacy is reflected through the work that these artists produced in collaboration with each other. While Andy Warhol was openly gay, Basquiat surrounded himself with women and thus their friendship was never more than just that, a truly platonic friendship. Author Victor Bockris best described Warhol and Basquiat’s relationship in his biography of Warhol:
“It was like some crazy art-world marriage, and they were the odd couple. The relationship was symbiotic. Jean-Michel thought he needed Andy’s fame, and Andy thought he needed Jean-Michel’s new blood. Jean-Michel gave Andy a rebellious image again.”
Yayoi Kusama and Eva Hesse had studios in the same building. Their proximity to each other allowed them to not only collaborate artistically but to also remain friends throughout their careers. Working in the 1960s male-dominated art scene of New York City, also brought them closer together as their work deals with notions of feminism and sexuality. By going through similar experiences and influencing each other’s style, they created some of the most iconic works and installations of the century.
Similar to Kusama and Hesse, the friendship between Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan helped solidify the pillars of what today we consider feminism in art. Frankenthaler and Hartigan were leaders in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Through their purely platonic friendship, Frankenthaler and Hartigan managed to address questions about women and art which were largely absent in contemporary discourse. They not only influenced each other’s techniques and styles, but they also exposed the double standards in art and art critique during this crucial artistic movement.
The platonic friendship between Keith Haring and Madonna is perhaps the least conventional on this list, as she was a singer rather than a visual artist and sometimes ran in a different social circle. During a period of time, Madonna crashed on Haring’s couch, which undoubtedly strengthened their friendship. Although they lived together, Madonna and Haring were never more than just friends.
Pollock’s and de Kooning’s relationship is probably the most complicated one in this article. Although they were inarguably close, their friendship was turbulent due to their differing views when it came to painting. While Pollock struggled with his ability to draw, de Kooning struggled with his technical mastery. Through their friendship, nevertheless, these two artists were able to push the other to be better and improve their work. Even though they were part of the same social circles and even had affairs with the same women, their rivalry lasted until the day Pollock died in a car accident in 1956.
The friendships between artists during the 1960s in NYC are proof that platonic intimacy is synonymous of growth. By making themselves mentally, emotionally, and physically vulnerable to their friends, these artists were able to grow in their practice.