New York

Mary Frank

Zabriskie Gallery

Mary Frank, whose terra-cotta figural sculptures seem increasingly well known, showed several large figures of women and a copious array of small pieces. The large-scale figure sculptures, almost all of women reclining, have for me a decidedly academic kind of body-posing, right out of the draped-model tradition. True, the traditional (and perhaps masculine?) idea of monumentality, by which mass consists in the emphatic containment of power, is done without completely. What we have in its place is something so equally light as to seem its Oriental, rather than its “feminine” equivalent. Even so, however, I find little inspiration here except for the places where body parts take on geometric form—rectangles of arms and elbows or triangles of legs and knees. And except for the vertical figure called Moving Woman, of 1973. Otherwise, I am much more drawn to the many, many small sculptures by Frank, some of them almost fetishistically tiny.

Moving Woman differs from most of the larger figure pieces in its free-standing verticality. We see the standing woman as an incomplete, husklike form, jutting chestily forward like a ship’s figurehead or like Winged Victory with her windblown drapery. Either way, the figure presses forward with an assertive grandeur that for the reclining figure pieces is obviated by fragmentation. In place of the “Walking Man” tradition in modernist sculpture we have something more like what Wallace Stevens described as “Like a body wholly body, fluttering/Its empty sleeves.” The split mask (persona?) of the woman, revealing a second, deeper face within, as well as the resultant combination of face and profile, may also suggest poetic imagery, as may even the rather Cocteau-like style of the “drawn” parts. By altering and fragmenting already incomplete forms Frank holds off a preciosity that the poetic element, as lyrical as it is, might induce.

The little terracottas benefit from a closer relation between the entire piece—as well as its contained forms—and the leathery thickness and pliable character of the once-plastic terra-cotta. In style they belong to the tradition of Nakian, so much so in fact as to seem in direct homage, especially when small slabs of clay are jabbed into and sculpturally “drawn” on with a stylus. The terra cotta itself always retains some of its crisp, grainy original texture; it has the crumbly plasticity of pastry dough, even when it’s “done.” This works more beautifully for Mary Frank in Moving Woman than in her more diffuse and overblown pieces, and it works very well indeed at closest range in her very small sculptures, whose secretively personal size intensifies a potent kind of essential femaleness that dissolves away into rhetoric in the big women.

Joseph Masheck