“Mary Frank: The Observing Heart,” an elegant survey of the 89-year-old artist’s oeuvre of paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and posters at the Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz through July 17, spans decades, but the exhibition isn’t so much a retrospective as it is a walk through an imaginative world whose narratives about human suffering, love, loss, fear, and other aspects of the human condition resonate with the anxieties and fears of this moment. Frank’s pictorial language consists of archetypal nude or robed figures juxtaposed in some instances with looming faces and heads or mythological creatures. They move and gesticulate with the grace of dancers, and along with plant, bird and animal forms 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 heightened by the rough texture of the paint and palette of earthy reds, black, and gray, as if the works were painted not on board or wood panel but on the walls of a cave. Frank’s intuitive approach to making art, which extends to painting on a fungus, “drawing with light” by cutting incisions into a piece of paper with scissors that is then suspended in a window, and positioning a cut-out silhouette of a head or a figure over 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 as she recycles her paintings and small sculptures into new works of art and expands on her themes. The result is an amazing coherence and consistency, a totality of vision that is indifferent to issues of style. “The pleasure of a good exhibition is to really connect with viewers and give them an experience maybe they never had before, that has real meaning, rather than me making a statement,” Frank said recently in a phone conversation. “Hopefully it’s one that leads them to action” — an imperative for Frank herself, whose activism on numerous causes has centered in the past two decades on Solar Cookers International, an organization that distributes solar cookers throughout the developing world.
The earliest work is a wood carving of a figure, entitled Winged Woman, that dates from 1958, when Frank was a young mother living in Greenwich Village just getting her start as an artist. (She was born in London, moved to New York City with her mother at age seven to escape the Blitz, studied with Martha Graham as a high school student, and married photographer Robert Frank at age 17, a union later leading to divorce and Frank’s struggle to support her two children while devoting herself to art.) Her first show was of these carved wood sculptures in the early 1960s; tellingly, her influence was not the Abstract Expressionists with whom she rubbed shoulders but the ancient Egyptian sculptures she saw at the Met.
The large paintings on the gallery walls, which can roughly be categorized as Blake-like howling wildernesses engulfing human figures and animals and more somber, totemic-like compositions in which a series of miniature narrative tableaux are arranged like pictographs in a rough grid, are complemented by numerous sculptures, most of them of fired clay and depicting 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 pinnacle of Frank’s career), which were followed by the paintings starting in the 1990s. A surprising number of the paintings, however, were made in the past four years — strong works showing an artist still in her prime (or, as curator David Hornung writes in the catalog essay, “mid flight”). Their suggestive narratives, in which small, naked figures float, swim, leap, run, crouch or raise their hands in despair or ecstasy in the depths of tsunami-like waves or cosmic whirlwinds, which threaten to whisk away all of human history, speak powerfully to the predicament of a world on the brink of ecocide; the fiery reds and savage blacks seem to address, presciently, the horror of war that is now wreaking death and destruction in Ukraine and possibly could engulf the planet. Arcadia has deserted the bathers of Picasso and Matisse, who now find themselves marooned in chaos. Human or animal spirit guides, conveyance by boats or horses, and jumps in scale between the forms, which simultaneously suggest confinement and vast space, intimacy and isolation, suggest states of consciousness and transformation, but in much of the recent work, in particular, there can be no doubt that the stakes are 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 collaged leaf, a fan-like shape whose surface is covered in intricate tracery, which is being consumed by flames rising from a rocky precipice in the lower left-hand corner; the reddish atmosphere, riven with white smoke, the receding fragments of labyrinths, suggesting broken civilizations, and the swooping, dark form of a woman trying to escape, convey a powerful sense of cataclysm. What might in the past have been thought mainly as metaphors of the human condition now have a frightening urgency, even as Frank offers images of hope — for example, the white bird whose broad uplifted wings extend off the canvas, suggesting solace and protection, even as its half-opened peak could also signal alarm; such ambiguities and double meanings are characteristic of Frank’s work.
The clay sculptures explore these ideas through more purely formal means. The three-dimensional forms of her figures, horses and heads are conceived as hollow volumes fragmented by and extending out into space. In Horse and Rider, a reclining nude figure, her legs cut off at the knees, raises a hand to her buttock, as if to spur herself, not the two halves of the horse, which her body bridges, forward. The truncated horse is in full gallop, surmounting undulating, fabric-like folds of clay that describe its forward momentum; mass is subsumed to energy, as the clay is used to dematerialize the solid animal into moving force. Frank similarly uses clay to describe the movement of the bodies and swirling robes in the Three Dancers, a grouping that recalls Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. Her conception is lyrical, rather than the geometrical, analytic approach of the Cubists, and the effect is one of ineffable grace. Nighthead, a large head sliced through the middle to reveal a painting of a blue figure crossing two planes opened up like the pages of a book, ingenuously suggests the head as the generator of dreams, of a consciousness that flows beyond its physical confines.
Sculpting clay enabled Frank to interpret the fluidness of her active forms by conceiving them as fragments of a whole, resulting in a flexibility of execution and meaning. Her reclining figures, for example, suggest both death-like repose and resurgent energy. Consisting of ceramic pieces fired separately then pieced together on the bare ground, these signature works of pathos and playfulness, in which the viewer’s imagination fills in the spaces between the forms, evolved from the limitation of using a kiln that was too small to fire an entire figure, noted the artist. “I made a head in clay and then decided to continue the body, which had to be in pieces. I liked making ten legs, which you can move around and were all different. An arm could be like a wing or a band. It gave me tremendous freedom.” (One of these recumbent figure pieces in the show, Lover, is actually bronze, cast from the original clay sculpture.)
Such improvising, which encompasses the use of collage in her two-dimensional pieces to incorporate a variety of mediums and materials, such as stones, leaves, twigs and other natural materials, is key to her process, which is one of discovery. This quest infuses her work with a freshness of vision whose contradictory impulses and pivotal meanings in turn engage and challenge the viewer.
The sensitive curatorial touch of Hornung, an accomplished artist himself, has resulted in a flowing rhythm of paintings and sculptures in the main gallery space, with ample room, lending a sense of expansiveness to the viewing experience. That contrasts with the density of works hung salon-style in the back room, which conveys the intimacy and processes of the artist’s studio. Drawings are the raw content from which the works evolve, and so it is fascinating to observe the many sheets of figures, animals and birds in ink, charcoal, and pastel clustered on the wall. There is also a wall of monotypes, each like a Frank painting in miniature except with shapes more clear-edged, a beautiful modulation of tones, a luminosity of color, and a more graphic contrast of black and white, suggesting the delicacy of Japanese sumi art.
There is also a display of archival pigment prints, the name given to the tableaux of paintings, drawings, small sculptures, natural objects and cut-out paper assembled collage-like on the studio’s concrete floor and photographed by Frank, which is then printed and framed as the artwork. The prints, which sometimes incorporate water and a fish bowl in their imagery, have been collected in a book entitled Pilgrimage, with text by art critic John Yau and a poem by Terry Tempest Williams. There is also a large papier mache sculpture, entitled Chimera, of a snarling lion with a red deer head emerging from its back. And finally, there is a display 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 her “Don’t Tear Families Apart” poster addressing former president Trump’s cruel family separation policy at the border).
Frank has exhibited at major museums (her large triptych What Color Lament? is on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art) and received numerous awards, including two Guggenheim fellowships. She has illustrated books by Peter Matthiessen and others and been the subject of many books herself. For many years she has been represented by the Elena Zang Gallery, located here in Woodstock, where she resides half the year, and D.C. Moore, in New York City, where she and her husband, Leo Treitler, a 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 the Dorsky through July 17. The museum is open Wed. through Sun., from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed for spring break March 12-20).