They met briefly and only once, but seeing their works beside one another at the NGV’s new exhibition Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions, you might believe they were collaborators.

Brett Whiteley and George Baldessin were born within a month of each other, and both died tragically; Baldessin in an alcohol-related car accident, and Whiteley from a drug overdose. Their widows have taken up the mantle of maintaining their legacies, but Baldessin could be seen as unfairly overlooked these days, while Whiteley has become mythologised as an Australian legend.

Sasha Grishin isn’t interested in that, though. The NGV curator is softly spoken, but firm about his intentions for the show.

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“I’m trying to move away from biography,” he tells me. “Who cares if Whiteley died of a drug overdose? It’s a tragedy, but he achieved so much in his life. Let’s forget it and look at the art.”

In Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions, Grishin depicts a pair of maverick figures bucking the trends (abstraction, minimalism) of ’60s Australian art (recently recalled in the NGV’s The Field Revisited exhibition).

As storied and prominent as Whiteley is, there’s plenty here you probably won’t have seen. I chat briefly to Wendy Whiteley, his widow, who is surprised some work even she hasn’t seen for decades is included.

And at least one Baldessin has been seen by almost nobody; it was recently found on top of a cupboard in the family home.

The show plays the artists’ careers out in tandem; Whiteley on white walls, Baldessin on grey-blue. After some scene-setting big works, including Baldessin’s huge pear sculptures and a deep blue painting of Sydney Harbour from Whiteley, we see more human forms. There are prints from Baldessin and paintings from Whiteley, all twisted, distended limbs. Whiteley’s Summer at Sigean (1962–3) is a three-panelled landscape of human skin.

The curation is more thematic than chronological. Whiteley’s series on serial murderer John Christie, from the mid-’60s, shares a room with Baldessin’s conflated image of Mary Magdalene and the prostitutes of Rue St Denis in Paris, which was completed a decade later.

Grishin describes it as existentialist work. “It’s not that they sat around reading [French writer, philosopher and activist] Sartre,” he says. “They were focused on ideas. The world is out of joint. There’s no order. There’s no God. We’ve got total freedom, but also total responsibility. We’re thrust into the world naked, and we have to make something of ourselves.”

Around the corner, Whiteley’s Regent Park Zoo captures that existential anguish in animals: a giraffe winds through a plain blue page, a hyena is held back by bars, an anguished baboon cries out. While Whiteley’s work screams, Baldessin is more contemplative and considerate. Whiteley’s work is glitzier, more conducive to the kind of rockstar-artist mythology he’s been assigned.

But it’s not, Grishin is keen to point out, “a pissing contest”.

The exhibition culminates in Whiteley’s huge The American Dream (1968), a 22-metre-long mixed-media piece arranged in a semicircle. It was Whiteley’s attempt to come to grips with his brief time in New York and, in his words at the time, “the immense and immediately seeable MADNESS that seemed to run through most facets of American life”. He wrote the piece off as a noble failure, but it rounds up the show beautifully with its sprawl of ideas – some sketchy, but all ambitious and enthralling.

“Here are two interesting, quirky giants,” Grishin says. “They’re two of the greatest draughtsmen Australia has produced. I mean, look at that.” He points to a line portrait of Wendy Whiteley and the couple’s daughter, Arkie. “Look at that line,” he says. “So simple.”

“The line Baldessin uses is different, but no less sophisticated. It’s the sort of draughtsmanship of Goya and Rembrandt. It’s awkward. It’s tough. It’s hard-won.”

Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions is at the NGV until January 28, 2019.