Frida On Our Minds

With a record sale at Christie's and a biography that keeps selling, the late Mexican painter ranks with the greats. Do we need a movie with Madonna?

In the fevered '80s, Frida Kahlo's posthumous performance in the auction pit last week would have met with a resounding "Eh?" But this is the New Art World Order: recession. More than a third of the works under the gavel at Christie's failed to meet their minimums. So it was no mean feat for "Self-Portrait with Loose Hair" (a small 1947 painting last sold in 1983 for $85,000) to fetch a record $1.65 million for a work by a Latin American artist. The painting is headed for a well-known collection in Mexico, where Kahlo's work was declared national patrimony in 1985-meaning it can't permanently leave the country. The prices of Kahlo paintings available on the international market are bound to soar.

It's not just Kahlo's art that's in demand but, in a highbrow version of the Elvis phenomenon, Frida herself. Her life story is the subject of films (a PBS documentary and a Mexican feature) and nascent projects involving the likes of Robert De Niro and Madonna. After the Material Girl visited Kahlo's high-school boyfriend in 1989 to ask him to share his "secrets about Frida," she wrote a thank-you note affirming, "She is my obsession and my inspiration." Madonna included a photo to reassure him "I am not a natural blonde." Hayden Herrera's 1983 "Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo" has sold almost 100,000 copies and is the reigning sisterhood-solidarity gift of choice. If Kahlo had been a ballplayer or a rock star instead of a mere painter, we'd be in the midst of Fridamania.

It's axiomatic that the best art is often bought for the worst reasons (status or investment), and the worst stuff purchased with the best intent (to enjoy the way it looks). In the case of Kahlo, weighing the quality of the art against the saga of the artist is particularly complicated. Her life story, now the stuff of hagiography, strikes about every emotionally correct nerve in the contemporary art world. Kahlo (190754) was a faux-naif surrealist who specialized in confessional self-portraits. The daughter of a German Jewish father and Mexican mother, she lived her adult life in the shadow of her husband, Diego Rivera, the muralist who was a Mexican national hero. He was gross (300. pounds) and psychologically abusive (he seduced her younger sister, for instance). But the bisexual Frida retaliated with affairs of her own (with Leon Trotsky, for one, and even some of the women with whom Rivera was dallying).

A grisly accident when she was a teenager (a streetcar hit the bus in which she was riding and drove a handrail into her abdomen and out her vagina) meant that her pregnancies resulted in miscarriages and abortions. Semi-crippled and in constant pain, she required several ghastly operations and enough liquor to make her a probable alcoholic. Nevertheless, Kahlo stood fast for her country (altering her birth date to coincide with the start of the 1910 Mexican revolution), her politics (at her cremation a hammer and sickle was draped over the casket) and her sex. Unlike Georgia O'Keeffe or Louise Nevelson (who may have been one of Rivera's apprentice-lovers), Kahlo didn't enjoy a long enough career to make it into the coffee-table books while she was still alive. To many collectors and critics, she's as close to a martyr as ever turns up on Park Avenue.

But are the paintings that good? Louise Noun, the 83-year-old feminist who sold "Self-Portrait with Loose Hair" to help endow a women's archives at the University of Iowa, politely declines to call Kahlo a genius or the picture a masterpiece. In general, Kahlo's paintings are better than Rivera's, who was more at home before the magnificence of a mural than the comparative modesty of an easel. The best Kahlos exude a spiritual intensity inextricably bound to genuine visual invention and technical adroitness. But a large part of the audience's infatuation with Kahlo comes from her pictures' stories, like the scene of consolation in "Two Nudes in a Forest." They have a shock-simpatico feel that makes you suspect the presence of a psychologist coaching her to draw all the terrible things that the world and Diego did to her. That doesn't mean Kahlo isn't a feminist equivalent of Vincent van Gogh; it rather means she is. Van Gogh's short, tragic life has (if auction prices are an index) caused his work to be overvalued, too. With $54 million, one could easily buy a dozen paintings better than the "Irises."

Frida fever is not likely to abate soon. Kahlo's life and work match the sensibility of the times too well. This is an age of artists more than art, and she was a woman who, when her first solo show in Mexico opened just a year before she died, was carried in on a stretcher in native costume, thus transforming the event into cathartic theater. This is also a time of justly revisionist feminist art history when, as UCLA art historian Albert Boime notes, "Almost any woman who ever touched a brush is being studied systematically-after being systematically excluded for so many years." And one has only to peek into a Soho gallery-at the work of Cindy Sherman, Hannah Wilke or Lorna Simpson to ascertain that current art is as awash in argumentative autobiography as Kahlo's ever was. Politically correct? Well, at least culturally so. Biographer Herrera presciently exempted Kahlo's surrealism from being "the product of a disillusioned European culture searching for an escape from the limits of logic by plumbing the subconscious," and touted it as "a way of coming to terms with reality, not of passing beyond reality into another realm"-as, one infers, white European males do.

Ballots-and bullets politics are another matter. When Kahlo died, she left an unfinished portrait of Joseph Stalin, and in her diary she recorded her solidarity with the happily Sovietized people of postwar Czechoslovakia and Poland. These aren't the gentle leftisms of a New Age multiculturalist, but the sentiments of a woman whose husband-right around the time they both applied for readmittance to the party-boasted of having invited Trotsky to Mexico just so he could be rubbed out. (Herrera insists that Diego and Frida "loved life too passionately to be capable of murder, no matter what the dictates of the Comintern.") None of this seems to matter to her fans-hey, we're talking heroine-worship here. "It's getting like Warhol mania," says Judi Freeman, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "People didn't know his art, but they knew they were supposed to know who he was."

Fridaphilia does have its detractors, or at least worriers. In Mexico, the reaction is more mixed than north of the Rio Grande, in part because of a fear that gringos are hyping and commercializing an essentially inwardly directed artist. Ofelia Medina, the Mexican actress best known for her critically acclaimed performance as Frida in Paul Leduc's 1984 film, says "Frida wasn't about sex and entertainment. She broke with the established order, but with a lot of pain, not to exhibit herself, not for show." But the line between exhibitionism and exhibition is razor-thin these days, especially when the artist is a legend in the making. For better or worse, Frida Kahlo is the woman of the hour.