Mary Frank is an artist who works as a sculptor, painter, photographer, and ceramic artist. Her work places her among the foremost figurative artists of our time. From her earliest works in clay to her work in encaustic, paintings, and drawings she has always created recognizable forms of archetypal figures, the most important being the human body and face. Frank’s process begins with some form of abstraction and leads into the figurative.
Frank was born in London as the only child to American-born abstract painter Eleanore Lockspeiser and to an English father – a renowned musicologist and art critic. Because her parents were Jewish, Mary was evacuated from London to attend several boarding schools when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. Prior to June 1940 when her home in London was bombed and all of her mother’s paintings were destroyed, Mary and her mother moved to the United States. She was seven years old.
Living in Brooklyn, New York with her maternal grandparents, Mary studied dance with Martha Graham for several years from 1945-1950 and was admitted to the High School of Music and Art where she remained for one year. She transferred out and attended the Professional Children’s School. Here she met Swiss photographer Robert Frank. They married in 1950 and had two children early on. They divorced in 1969.
Frank is largely self-taught and had very little formal, academic training. She did however study woodcarving and began making wood sculpture in the early 1950s. She also studied drawing with Max Beckmann at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School and studied briefly with Hans Hoffman in 1951 and 1954 at his private studio school, the Eighth Street School in Greenwich Village.
In 1958, she exhibited her drawings in New York City. In 1969, she began working in clay. She first gained recognition as a sculptor of monumental “Earth Women,” which she made out of clay and embedded into a landscape. They were often displayed lying down with legs and arms wide.open.
In the 1970s and 1980s, she made large multi-part, figurative clay sculptures, drawings, and mono prints which remained the focus of her work. Her figure sculptures have been described as sensual, sublime, erotic, and metaphorical. She imparts a sense of the timeless and the elemental to her work.
In the 1990s, she transitioned from sculpture into painting as her primary medium. Her paintings approach relief. In most paintings dense layers of acrylic paint are manipulated with a palette knife or raked with a clay-modeling tool. Collage may be embedded into paint, which is smeared, incised, or scumbled.
Her encaustic paintings on panel are smooth and lustrous on a brilliant white ground. Her figures are lithe and graceful with long, flowing hair as if flying, floating, or falling in space. (Perhaps these figures are her way of remembering the tragic death of her 21 year old daughter killed in a plane crash in Guatemala.) In her portrait drawings, her faces are realistic, but she avoids brutal realism. Sometimes her faces emerge in the outline of an animal’s head. She says that in her portraiture, she aims to capture “the music, topography, and climate of the human face.”
Frank was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1984 and is the recipient of two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship Awards, the Lee Krasner Award, and the Joan Mitchell Grant Award. She was elected into the National Academy of Design and became a full time professor at Bard College.
Frank has had numerous solo museum and gallery exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, the DeCordova Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and others.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the above mentioned institutions and other museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Jewish Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of American Art, the Newark Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Yale University Art Gallery.