One of my first truly profound art experiences was with a sculpture by Mary Frank. I was twenty years old, and an intern at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. The museum’s collection of twentieth-century ceramics is one of the best anywhere, and there were many works that I found revelatory: Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s intricate Scarab Vase (1910), with its impossibly delicate carving; a handsome vase by Maija Grotell, with chevrons gliding down through the icy glaze; an early expressionistic work by Peter Voulkos, its sound and fury definitely signifying something.
But there was nothing in that collection like Mary Frank’s Horse and Rider (1982). Made of terra-cotta, mostly in thin slabs, it unfolds in a horizontal rush, like Renaissance drapery whipped by the wind. The figures themselves are sensitively modeled, but their rippling musculature is offset by little wrinkles and rips in the clay, while the eyeless horse and its emaciated rider seem to strain—perhaps toward apocalypse.
At my impressionable age back then, Frank’s work had a tremendous impact. It was the first time that I perceived how much an artist could do with so little—just a few pounds of clay, folded and formed. Unlike the masterful Robineau and Grotell, or even the strident Voulkos, Frank showed that you could completely sidestep conventional technique with a matador’s dexterity, and produce something wondrous.
I recently reacquainted myself with Horse and Rider in a Frank retrospective curated by artist David Hornung, “The Observing Heart,” on view through July 17 at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art. Located on the campus of SUNY New Paltz, the Dorsky is now under the dynamic leadership of Anna C. Conlan. Across a hallway from Frank’s show is “Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere,” an exhibition organized by independent curator nico wheadon that explores “the Black radical imagination.” Conlan herself recently curated a show about a little-known women’s art colony led by pioneering feminist Kate Millett. In this progressive context, the eighty-nine-year-old Frank presides as an elder stateswoman. No stranger to activism herself—she has been making political posters since the Vietnam War—the artist has always had the courage of her convictions.
Frank’s best-known works are the ceramic sculptures that she started making in the early 1970s, despite having had no previous experience in the medium. (She also worked at home and had no kiln, she told me in a recent phone interview, and so had to carry her fragile pieces down the hall of her apartment building, “past the baby carriages and kids on skates, down the elevator and get [them] in the truck” and off to be fired.) In addition to the Everson’s work, there are several other wonderful examples at the Dorsky, including the poignant Arching Woman (ca. 1972), a mere drape of clay that somehow manages to summon Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, and Three Dancers (1981), which finds an ideal midpoint between the serene choreography of Tang Dynasty tomb figures and the muscular figuration of Auguste Rodin.
Particularly impressive is Woman with Winged Arms (1975), a disaggregated figure, flat on its back, fully eight feet long. It feels like an archaeological find, perhaps from a funerary context. The face has the placidity of eternal rest, and Frank has painted shin and thigh bones onto the legs. One hand holds a miniature mask, and fossil-like imprints of ferns congregate around the feet, like an offering. Yet the tomblike atmosphere is offset by a palpable sensuality. Frank makes brilliant use of clay’s pliancy to render hair, breasts, ribcage, hipbones. The work is Freud’s dialectical opposition between eros and thanatos, the life and death drives, in sculptural form.
This said, Frank explores her mythic subject matter—“the primal themes of human existence,” according to Hornung in the exhibition catalogue—with disarming sincerity. She’s like that in person too, refreshingly free of dependence on theoretical armature. When I mentioned the Everson sculpture to her, she replied, “everyone knows it’s a symbol that means different things, life and death, and all that. But a horse is a horse.” Keeping this focus on the fact of the matter, observational drawing is the engine of all her work. She’s an artist who never goes anywhere without a sketchbook. Her studio (which itself has quite an archaeological stratigraphy) is filled with them: “one might disappear for a while, and then I find it under a pillow.”
Images from this iconographical quarry circulate constantly through Frank’s work. Her great strength is the fleeting aperçu, the insight caught on the fly. Much of what she makes—paintings, monotype prints, papier-mâché sculptures, in addition to ceramics—looks collaged, even when it isn’t, and her touch is invariably feather-light. Her “shadow papers,” for example, produced concurrently with her ceramics in the 1970s, are essentially drawings made with scissors. Created with the paper held up to the sky, the images of animals and faces become visible only when backlit. With marvelous aptness, Frank once used them to illustrate a book of verse by Emily Dickinson, that most incisive of poets.
Even Frank’s most ambitious paintings, like a large-scale triptych bearing the Gauguin-esque title What Color Lament? (1991–93), on loan to the Dorsky show from the Whitney Museum of American Art, feel somewhat provisional, with vignettes of shrouded figures on separate canvases inset like stray thoughts. She alights on new ideas constantly but non-systematically, as insects do on flowers. Lately she has been painting on stones, using their natural contours as the parameters for her compositions. In 2006 she began photographing her own older works, transforming them through odd angles and juxtapositions. Downy feathers spill across a drawing. A silhouette in handcut metal is photographed atop a leaf that in turn lies atop a puddle of water. The exhibition even includes one work, For the Time-Being (2017), which incorporates an enormous tree fungus, on which she has painted the image of an owl in flight.
Frank comes by her intuitive approach quite naturally, for she never had any sustained artistic training. The closest she came was as a teenager, when she spent five years studying with dance legend Martha Graham. As Hornung observes in the exhibition catalogue, “the stylized movement and grave, elemental postures” of Graham’s choreography had an obvious influence on Frank’s early aesthetic. Frank also had the opportunity to study drawing with Max Beckmann in 1950, in the last year of the great German artist’s life. That same year she married the soon-to-be-prominent photographer Robert Frank—they would separate in 1969—and also took up woodcarving. Among the earliest works in the Dorsky show is Couple (ca. 1961), made at the time of Frank’s first gallery exhibition. It’s a direct carving that is anything but direct in its composition. At first it looks completely abstract, until you notice the bumps of a well-formed backside. Only gradually and never explicitly—the title helps—do you begin to make out two figures locked in an embrace. There’s no telling where one begins and the other ends.
Right from the start, then, Frank was tapping into something archaic. That interest was certainly in the air at the time. The 1959 exhibition “New Images of Man” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, explored, in the words of curator Peter Selz, “the unconscious and the primitive mass-man from which man comes and to which civilized mass-man may return.” Yet for Frank, the primordial was the personal, and that has remained true throughout her long, restlessly creative career. When I spoke to her, she had just gone to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. She made her way directly to the ancient art galleries, and there stood for a time in front of the museum’s famed Cycladic harpist, carved from marble about 4,700 years ago. She marveled at its strange immediacy—the little chair the figure sits on, just like our own.
There’s a bronze sculpture in the Dorsky show called Messenger (1991–92) that feels similarly poised at the vertex of the ancient and the familiar. It depicts a young woman, a scored texture coursing over her limbs and body. Her arms are upraised, and she leaps over a castoff metal wheel—a found object, maybe giving just the slightest nod to Duchamp’s bicycle wheel, but also an image of ruination, and of time’s turning. The sculpture calls ancient depictions of the god Mercury to mind, but this girl has no wings on her feet. She’s one of us.
A kindred figure forms the exclusive subject of Lift (2021), one of the most recent paintings in the Dorsky show, and one of Frank’s most instantly iconic. She could be the Messenger girl all grown up. The striations of the bronze reappear here, rendered in black and white, delineating the body’s contours like a topographical map. The background is vivid, by Frank’s standards. “Color is an agony and a joy, a deep mystery for me and it always will be,” she says. “I can’t use the word ‘understand’ anywhere near color.” Lift has just that ineffable quality. Are we looking, here, at a spiritual apotheosis, an ascension into the heavenly firmament? An allegory of Everywoman triumphant? A self-portrait of the artist? The answer, as ever with Frank, is beguilingly straightforward. Yes, yes, yes.
Mary Frank’s retrospective, “The Observing Heart,” is on view at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY New Paltz, through July 17.