Wendy Vogel on Mary Frank

A longtime environmental activist and artist, Mary Frank underscored her impulse toward creative reuse in her latest solo show at DC Moore Gallery. Even the show’s title, “What Color Courage?,” which hearkened back to an older work—her multipanel painting What Color Lament?, 1991–93, owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York—functioned as a kind of optimistic refrain. That piece was included in Frank’s 2022 retrospective at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at the State University of New York in New Paltz. Yet her one-woman exhibition here rivaled the scope of a formal institutional presentation, featuring more than sixty paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. The show was filled with Frank’s signature language of natural forms, mythological tropes, and expressionistic figures, and demonstrated how she’s remixed parts of her own oeuvre, both materially and conceptually.

The papier-mâché sculpture Chimera, 1984–86, offered an apposite point of entry: Made from old monoprints, it was one of the earliest works on view that incorporated Frank’s cast-off art. She kept the mythic beast’s roaring lion’s body and angry serpent’s tail in the original gray scale of the prints, but painted the antelope head springing forth from the creature’s back orange and crimson. These bold color choices evince the dynamism of her figure drawings—typically freewheeling nudes rendered in red, blue, or black charcoal.

Frank, who moved to New York from England as a child to escape World War II, studied dance with Martha Graham in the late 1940s, as well as drawing with Max Beckmann and Hans Hofmann. Yet she made her name with sculpture, first crafted from wood during the 1950s, then from clay in the 1970s. A grouping of smaller sculptures on a stepped plinth in the show stressed her ongoing engagement with figuration, low relief, and natural materials. The ceramic Woman Rising, ca. 1974, shows the titular subject, nude, ascending from a smooth slab of clay, her body propelled into the air by a muscular kick of her left foot. In the ceramic pieces The Garden and Receiving (both 1992/2021), Frank molded small but brightly painted figures that have been wedged into rippling, cavern-like spaces. These works were installed next to a series of recent paintings on small found stones, dated 2018–22, some of which featured animals with piercing, confrontational gazes.

This exhibition also foregrounded the way Frank translates the movement from her sculptures into her two-dimensional pieces. One section of the gallery presented drawings and prints hung salon style, featuring athletic, anguished, and mythological subjects, including a female centaur and a winged Persephone. The artist’s latest body of work, a series of mixed-media collages, borrows liberally from her own corpus and examines themes such as sex, the double, nurturing, and chaos. In Cusp, 2021, Frank has collaged two pictures of heads from older sculptures that sit atop a sinewy, painted body, scored with a pattern that resembles wood grain. The twinned figure holds a wildcat in her blue outstretched hand, while another feline paces behind her red striated horns. Only When, 2022, imbued with a similar kind of eroticism, depicts another two-headed woman who straddles a rock. ¿Or Was It Like This? II, 2018–19, shows us a figure on the right side of the composition gazing mournfully upon a deserted labyrinthine structure at the center of the image. On the left-hand side are fossil-like stones, on which Frank has drawn people and human/animal hybrids. Woman Looking at Us, 2020, distills many of the artist’s ideas—natural regeneration, human suffering—into a single work. A sad-eyed woman with stone features holds a boat teeming with silhouetted figures. Above her, three frames depict the back of a person’s head alongside two vaguely placental nasturtiums. The flowers are a recurring symbol in Frank’s universe, sprouting against all odds.

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