Mary Frank

De Cordova Museum; Nielsen Gallery

Two concurrent exhibitions of Mary Frank’s work showed the artist to be fluent and poetic in graphic art, as well as in her usual medium of sculpture. The De Cordova Museum launched the traveling survey “Natural Histories: Mary Frank’s Sculpture, Prints, and Drawings,” and the Nielsen Gallery housed a small-scale, companion exhibition, “Sources: Drawings by Mary Frank.” The Nielsen show displayed dozens of drawings, dating from 1970 through 1987, which emphasized the powerfully expressionist quality of Frank’s studies. Vigorous ink drawings of human figures and animals in motion, such as Two Bulls, 1971, conveyed the artist’s facility with strong, robust line. The more formally arranged De Cordova exhibition, Frank’s second retrospective since 1970, offered significant insight into the powerful visual relationship between Frank’s drawing and sculpture. The museum exhibition, with more than 80 works dating from 1979 through 1987, includes signature-style ceramic sculptures, plaster reliefs, monoprints, drawings, shadow papers, and metal plates.

Since the late ’60s, Frank has been best known for her myth-oriented, ceramic sculptures of leaping, running, and reclining female figures. At the De Cordova Museum, ceramic sculptures of varying scale were displayed alongside Frank’s large-scale monoprints, painted reliefs, and ink drawings. The two-dimensional pieces, often studies made from Frank’s finished sculpture, provide visual and thematic analogues for recurrent natural imagery: dancing figures, galloping horses, and wind-strewn plants. The terra-cotta, slab-built sculptures combine fragments of flat armatures with more organic sections of figures, giving the best works an open and improvisational quality.

Frank is at her most inventive and playful when creating mythical hybrid figures. Inspired by a fifth-century-B.C., Etruscan bronze monster, Chimera, 1986, is a frenzied charcoal and pastel drawing that seems to cry in rage and agony. Chimera, 1984, a unique papier-mâché sculpture, also employs the same creature, one with the head and body of a lion. Growing out of its back are the blood-red head and neck of an antelope, whose right horn is seized by a tail-turned-serpent. The beast’s skin is mostly gray and black, composed of old monoprints and pieces of rice paper run through a press. It is a haunting, brutal image, which the artist uses as a metaphor for apocalyptic destructiveness.

The more urgent figures, as well as those that appear to have been unearthed from an ancient civilization, are first rate. Less successful, yet still lyrical, are Frank’s more naturalistic and sentimental female figures and heads, most of which appear to be in a state of trance. These works, and a number of monoprints, seem a bit too polished and predictable to be truly effective. Nonetheless, the mounting and display of images in these shows demonstrated the technical virtuosity and emotional intensity of an artist who has fully developed a rapport with the past and present.

Francine Koslow