Visions of Mary in Woodstock

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Mary Frank has been making art for more than six decades. Her exploration of wood, plaster, wax, clay, monotype, ink, cutout paper, paint and photography has yielded a rich body of work. She sculpts, draws, paints, prints or cuts out of paper archetypal figures that raise their arms, crouch, leap, recline, stride purposefully or clutch their breasts, as well as spectral robed figures, animals, plants and architectural fragments. The figures are depicted in rugged, elemental landscapes, which themselves may be contained within silhouetted figures or heads, suggesting spirit worlds and states of consciousness.

Rooted in myth and imbued with a dreamlike logic, her narratives explore the themes of loss, pain, despair, love, hope, survival, the fragility of life and the cycles of renewal. Her protagonists are often portrayed in motion, emphasizing the quest, rather than their origin or destination. A man drawn in black ink races through spiky clouds formed of actual milkweed seeds while a storm, suggested by some thick strokes of green paint, rages at his back. Two stick figures, one close to the viewer, the other distant, bend toward each other over a rock chasm, unified in a broken arc even as they never touch. A couple embraces beneath an ink drawing of a soaring raptor.

Tension is created in her sculptures, works on paper and paintings (some consist of triptychs, with one narrative literally opening up to another) through the juxtaposition of opposites, such as near and far, body and the void – the figure isolated in space and space carved out of the figure are common motifs – flatness and three-dimensional form, stasis and flight, substance and shadow, release and confinement. Forms merge and metamorphose into each other: A human head sprouts wings, a portrait of a man is superimposed on a buffalo’s body, a woman’s outstretched arms leaf into branches, in a replay of the Daphne myth. The artwork itself is not easily categorized, and sculpture and painting are played off each other: Floral patterns and tiny figures are etched and printed into the curving surfaces of her clay figures and layers of paint cover the canvas or paper in a thick sediment.

The expressive power and raw emotion of Frank’s work emanate from this inventive use of materials. The transparency of her process and the sense of play – so beautifully conveyed in her most recent body of work, a series of photographs of tableaulike arrangements of her sculptures, paintings, cutouts and found objects – invite the viewer’s participation. The fragment points to the whole, enticing the imagination.

Born in 1933 in London, Mary Frank lived in a series of children’s boarding homes outside London to escape the Blitz before moving to New York City at age 7 with her mother, a painter. She studied dance with Martha Graham, married photographer Robert Frank at age 17, had two children and began making art. Her first pieces were carved wood sculptures depicting figures and animals inspired in part by the ancient Egyptian works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Despite the fact that figuration was out of sync with the fashion for abstraction and she was a woman artist in a pre-feminist era, Frank’s first solo exhibition in the early 1960s attracted notice. She went on to have a long, fruitful career, exhibiting at major museums and receiving numerous prestigious awards, including two Guggenheim fellowships. She has been the subject of several books and essays by distinguished art historians, including Hayden Herrera, and illustrated many books (including Shadows of Africa, written by Peter Matthiessen). For years she has been represented by the Elena Zang Gallery, located in Woodstock, and D. C. Moore Gallery, in New York City.

Now there’s a film, to be shown at Upstate Films in Woodstock on Sunday, August 31 at 2:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Frank and director John Cohen and a reception at the Elena Zang Gallery. Titled Visions of Mary Frank, the film was made by Frank’s longtime friend John Cohen and recounts Frank’s early years in Greenwich Village, which was the center of the New York art world. Reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe decades earlier, she was much-photographed; the film shows portraits by Walker Evans, Max Kozlof, Edouard Boubat, Edward Steichen and other well-known photographers. It captures the freewheeling excitement of the era, with footage of Mary chatting with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac on a streetcorner and photos from a costume party in her loft.

But Visions of Mary Frank is not so much a biopic as a paean to her work. From the beginning, her motivation was to “invent a way to get to the mystery,” as she puts it. “I never had the feeling I could make Art,” she says in the film. “I could make something that at best would come close to the feeling of an experience.” The contemporaries who influenced her, a few of whom she pays tribute to in the film, are lesser-known, even obscure colleagues and friends, rather than the big names that dominate the art history books.

The film opens with a lovely pan of a large clay female head poised on the roof garden of her New York loft. The repose of the meditative figure is intensified by the contrast with the cluttered urban skyline. (Indeed, the movement of the camera seems to deepen the mysterious charge of her sculptures: monumental, eternal presences whose stillness fairly vibrates.) The camera circles around the masklike head, which is revealed to be truncated; instead of a rounded form, the opposite side consists of a flat plane, in which is gouged a swirling shape, a negative space signifying the animation of invisible thought – or possibly a deep wound, stamp or sign. A hand caresses the face as we hear, and then see, Frank singing a French folksong: an intimate, childlike moment utterly at odds with the vast and impersonal cityscape. Interspersed with interviews of the artist in her studios in New York and Lake Hill, where she and her second husband, musicologist, writer and pianist Leo Treitler, spend half the year, is footage that lovingly records her work and process, accompanied by a soundtrack whose sources, like those of her art, span the globe and the centuries (it includes selections from Bach, Thelonious Monk, Japanese traditional music and Portuguese Fado).

Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently visited Mary at her Lake Hill home and studio to interview her about the film, as well as her art, life and activism (for the last 17 years, Frank has been promoting the use of solar cookers in the developing world through her work with Solar Cookers International:  Drawings and paintings lean against the wall and invade the floor, on which is painted a large blue head in profile, an orange boat, mountains and other images that appear in some of her photographs. Several shadow pieces are taped to the window overlooking the garden; in these, cuts made with scissors into the white paper catch the light, resulting in lines of pulsating luminosity describing an antelope, a seated nude, a cloud-ringed sky. Frank flips through prints of her photos, in which small and large nude and robed figures, animals and birds, both painted and sculpted in clay, monumental doorways, caves and mountains, and actual natural objects and materials, such as stones, leaves, twigs and water, are arranged in mystical narratives that play with space, light and shadow, texture and scale.

In the garden, behind a mass of flowers, one glimpses a recumbent life-sized bronze nude. From one side, the figure looks shattered; grass grows between the interstices of the fragments. Viewed from the opposite side, however, the figure is imbued with tremendous energy and seems to be rising from the ground. In another nook, a bronze masklike half-face peers from behind the greenery. Perched on a dilapidated table is a small clay slab, sculpted into a wave, from which emerges a standing figure, one foot forward, in the pose of an ancient Egyptian funerary statue; the motif, which was inspired by Frank’s drawings of swimmers and sunbathers on the beach at Cape Cod, imbues the familiar pose with new life and meaning, as if the statue, after being frozen for 4,000 years, has finally been released into movement, continuing its stride.

The following conversation took place in her studio:


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