“Mary Frank: The Observing Heart,” an elegant survey of the 89-year-old artist’s work of paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and posters at SUNY New Paltz’s Dorsky Museum of Art through July 17, will spans decades, but the exhibition is not so much a retrospective as a walk through an imaginary world whose tales of human suffering, love, loss, fear and other aspects of the human condition resonate with the anxieties and fears of the moment. Frank’s pictorial language consists of archetypal nude or clothed figures juxtaposed in some cases with menacing faces and heads or mythological creatures. They move and gesticulate with the grace of dancers, and with forms of plants, birds and animals and architectural fragments, they inhabit stark, elemental landscapes with rocky precipices and turbulent seas. The imagery suggests ancient iconographies, which speak to the universal – an effect enhanced by the rough texture of the paint and the palette of reds, blacks and earthy grays, as if the works were not painted on cardboard or wooden panels, but on the walls of a cave. Frank’s intuitive approach to creating art, which extends to painting on a mushroom, “drawing with light” by cutting incisions in a piece of paper with scissors which is then hung in a window, and positioning a cut-out silhouette of a head or figure on a piece of charred wood or green leaf to create an image of startling originality – an inventiveness reminiscent of Picasso – has been enriched over the years so that she recycles her paintings and small sculptures into new works of art and develops her themes. The result is an astonishing coherence and regularity, a totality of vision indifferent to questions of style. “The fun of a good exhibit is to really connect with viewers and give them an experience they may not have had before, that has real meaning, rather than making a statement,” said recently said Frank during a telephone conversation. “Let’s hope it’s the one that brings them to action” – an imperative for Frank herself, whose activism for many causes has centered over the past two decades on Solar Cookers International, an organization that distributes solar cookers in the developing world.
The oldest work is a wood carving of a figure, titled winged woman, which dates back to 1958, when Frank was a young mother living in Greenwich Village who was making her debut as an artist. (She was born in London, moved to New York with her mother at age seven to escape the Blitz, studied with Martha Graham in high school and married photographer Robert Frank at age 17, a union that later led to divorce and Frank’s struggle to provide for his two children while devoting himself to art.) His first exhibition was of these carved wooden sculptures in the early 1960s; Tellingly, her influence was not the Abstract Expressionists she rubbed shoulders with, but the ancient Egyptian sculptures she saw at the Met.
The large paintings on the gallery walls, which can be roughly classified as howling Blake-style wilderness engulfing human figures and animals and the darker, totemic compositions in which a series of miniature narrative tableaux are arranged like pictographs in a coarse grid, are completed by numerous sculptures, most of them in terracotta and representing reclining or dancing figures, nudes on horseback and large heads. The sculptures date from the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (and are considered by many to represent the height of Frank’s career), which were followed by the paintings from the 1990s. surprising number of paintings, however, have been made in the past four years – strong works showing an artist still at her peak (or, as curator David Hornung writes in the catalog essay, “in full flight”) . Their suggestive tales, in which small nude figures float, swim, leap, run, squat, or raise their hands in despair or ecstasy in the depths of tsunami-like waves or cosmic whirlpools, which threaten to sweep away all of human history, speak powerfully to the plight of a world on the brink of ecocide; fiery reds and savage blacks seem to approach, with foresight, the horror of the war that is now wreaking death and destruction on Ukraine and could eventually engulf the planet. Arcadia has deserted the bathers of Picasso and Matisse, who now find themselves plunged into chaos. Human or animal spirit guides, transport by boat or horse, and leaps of ladder between forms, which suggest both confinement and vast space, intimacy and isolation, suggest states of consciousness and transformation, but in much of recent work, in particular, there is no doubt that what is at stake is survival.
Among the most powerful of these works is Translation of bird calls, from 2018-19, in which nature is literally represented by a large glued sheet, a fan-like shape whose surface is covered with intricate tracery, which is consumed by flames rising from a rocky precipice in the corner lower left; the reddish atmosphere, torn with white smoke, the receding fragments of labyrinths, suggesting shattered civilizations, and the dark, plunging form of a woman trying to escape, convey a powerful sense of cataclysm. What might have been seen in the past primarily as metaphors for the human condition now have a chilling urgency, even as Frank offers up images of hope – for example, the white bird whose broad, upturned wings extend outward. canvas, suggesting comfort and protection, even as its half-open visor could also signal the alarm; such ambiguities and double meanings are characteristic of Frank’s work.
Clay sculptures explore these ideas in more purely formal ways. The three-dimensional forms of his figures, horses and heads are conceived as hollow volumes fragmented and extending in space. In Horse and Rider, a reclining naked figure, legs cut off at the knees, raises a hand to his buttock, as if to stimulate himself, and not to the two halves of the horse, which his body connects, forward. The truncated horse is in full gallop, surmounting undulating, cloth-like folds of clay that outline its forward momentum; mass is subsumed into energy, as clay is used to dematerialize the solid animal into motive force. Frank also uses clay to depict the movement of bodies and swirling dresses in the three dancersa grouping reminiscent of Rodin’s Bourgeois of Calais. Its design is lyrical, rather than the geometric, analytical approach of the Cubists, and the effect is ineffably graceful. night heada large head cut in the middle to reveal a painting of a blue figure crossing two open planes like the pages of a book, ingenuously suggests the head as the generator of dreams, of a consciousness that overflows its physical limits.
Sculpting clay allowed Frank to interpret the fluidity of his active forms by conceiving them as fragments of a whole, resulting in flexibility of execution and meaning. His elongated figures, for example, suggest both deadly rest and renewed energy. Composed of ceramic pieces fired separately and then assembled on bare ground, these iconic works of pathos and play, in which the viewer’s imagination fills the spaces between forms, evolved from limiting the use of an oven too small to bake an entire figure, noted the artist. “I made a head out of clay and then I decided to continue the body, which had to be in pieces. I liked making ten legs, which you can move and which were all different. An arm could be like a wing or a strip. It gave me enormous freedom.” (One of these recumbent pieces in the show, Loveris actually bronze, cast from the original clay sculpture.)
Such improvisation, which encompasses the use of collage in his two-dimensional pieces to incorporate a variety of mediums and materials, such as stones, leaves, twigs and other natural materials, is key to his process, which is that of discovery. This quest infuses her work with a freshness of vision whose contradictory impulses and central meanings in turn engage and challenge the viewer.
The sensitive curatorial touch of Hornung, an accomplished artist himself, resulted in a fluid rhythm of paintings and sculptures in the gallery’s main space, with plenty of space, giving a sense of expansiveness to the visual experience. This contrasts with the density of the works hung salon style in the back room, which conveys the intimacy and processes of the artist’s studio. The drawings are the raw content from which the works evolve, and so it is fascinating to observe the many sheets of characters, animals and birds in ink, charcoal and pastel grouped together on the wall. There is also a wall of monotypes, each like a Frank painting in miniature except with sharper shapes, beautiful modulation of tones, luminosity of color, and a more graphic contrast of black and white, suggesting the delicacy of the japanese sumi. art.
There is also an exhibition of archival pigment prints, the name given to arrays of paintings, drawings, small sculptures, natural objects and cut-out paper assembled like collages on the concrete studio floor and photographed by Frank, which are then printed and framed as the artwork. The prints, which sometimes incorporate water and a fishbowl into their imagery, have been collected in a book titled Pilgrimage, with text by art critic John Yau and a poem by Terry Tempest Williams. There is also a large papier-mâché sculpture, titled Chimera, of a snarling lion with a red stag’s head emerging from its back. And finally, there’s an exhibition of the posters Frank has designed for a plethora of causes, related to war, social justice, environmental destruction and women’s issues (some viewers may recognize his poster ” Don’t Tear Families Apart” addressing former President Trump’s cruel family separation policy on the border).
Frank has exhibited in major museums (his large triptych What color Lament? is on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art) and has received numerous awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships. She has illustrated books by Peter Matthiessen and others and has herself been the subject of many books. For many years she has been represented by the Elena Zang Gallery, located here in Woodstock, where she resides half the year, and DC Moore, in New York, where she and her husband, Leo Treitler, musicologist, writer and pianist, live the other half. An excellent documentary film by John Cohen, entitled Visions of Mary Frank, can be viewed on a screen in the gallery. “The Observing Heart” is on display at Dorsky until July 17. The museum is open on Wednesdays. to Sun., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed during spring break from March 12 to 20).