The last time the 14 blunt wooden sculptures in Mary Frank’s show “Transformations” were exhibited was more than 40 years ago. Accompanied here by a dozen or so sumi ink wash drawings from the same period, they provide eloquent testimony of the early interests of this artist, who has never been easy to categorize. As a sign of how she has continued to reinvent her art over the decades, Frank also showed 12 inkjet prints from the past two years: colorful collagelike photographs—studio setups of other photographs, drawings and sculptures, in fragments. Moving from an essentialist esthetic to one that tends to blur boundaries and flatten distinctions, the artist has clearly pursued a path with some divergences.
Frank began as a dancer in New York (1945-50), studying under, among others, Martha Graham and the Mexican-born José Limon. The latter’s method involved principles of “fall and recovery” and “weight and weightlessness,” not so far, in their own way, from the “push/pull” of Hans Hofmann, with whom the largely self-taught Frank studied for a spell (1951) after abandoning dance. The sculptures in this exhibition date from 1957-67. Abstract figures reclining on benches or rising from rough wooden pedestals, they were carved from big logs the artist found on the beach near Provincetown, where she summered. Solid and dense, comprising headless fragments or torsos missing an arm or a leg, they nonetheless embody a vivid torsion that veritably radiates energy. The female nudes arcing upward from benches are oddly sexy, more active than elegantly passive odalisques by Henry Moore.
As if the title doesn’t make it obvious, one clearly sees Rodin’s influence in a sculpture like Iris (Messenger of the Gods), 1960, with its truncated arms and stump legs splayed wide and kicking, and there is more than a hint of Gauguin in two 85-inch-long reliefs (Early Passages I and II, ca. 1959), roughly carved into geometric scenes of figures in a landscape. While she smoothed some surfaces, others, like that of the headless Winged Woman (ca. 1960), were left with rough chisel marks and cracks, which along with the one-legged stance and asymmetrical wings give the figure an atavistic feel. Frank counts Inuit and African sculpture among her influences. As to her fellows, the closest ties are—however fortuitous—to Raoul Hague.
The wonderful figural ink wash drawings likewise capture grace within solid form. Executing them in just a few long, adept strokes, Frank allowed the ink to pool dark, or mottle and thin to transparency. Made from observing people cavorting at the shore, they are animated by a natural choreography.
Photo: View of Mary Frank’s wood sculptures and sumi ink drawings from 1957-1967; at DC Moore.