San Francisco

Mary Frank

Throughout her career Mary Frank has struggled to give form to essential dualities: feminine and masculine, birth and death, joy and sorrow, presence and absence, transience and transcendence. Although the impact of her largely figurative work has been considerable, it has seldom been overtly political. Her subjects have been drawn from myth and natural history rather than from human history, that is, until “The Cart Series.”

“The Cart Series” is a group of monoprints on rice paper made in 1985–86. Each print in the series takes the form of a diptych juxtaposing various versions of two images: a flatbed cart stacked with dead bodies and abandoned on a stretch of railway track, and a head-and-shoulders portrait of a person wearing a black-and-white-striped concentration-camp uniform.

The body cart is seen from different perspectives in each print, and the stacked corpses are variously delineated, inscribed, differentiated, and composed. In one frame, the corpse lying on top of the heap almost seems to gesture skyward in supplication, but we cannot be sure of this. The cart is sometimes black and sometimes white, and it is always abandoned, the sky above it cut by rain or snow. In one print we view the cart from above as the tracks below traverse a shimmering void (the river of forgetfulness?). In another, the cart appears to rise and become a constellation in a smudged and refracted firmament. The other constitutive image—the prisoner portrait—is also variously worked and transformed. Male or female, blind or piercingly sighted, the prisoner acts as a terrible witness.

Frank has always approached the mono-print as a sculptural medium. At the same time, her abilities as a draftsman are considerable. The images in her monoprints seem to come into being through the sheer force of her attack and the accumulation of manual acts. It is Frank’s almost biological need to act on an image rather than receive it passively that defines her work and gives her restraint in “The Cart Series” an ethical weight.

The two basic images undergo a series of formal elaborations without suffering diminishment or inflation. Avoiding affectation and exaggeration, they manage to remain relentlessly singular. The layering of purposeful marks ultimately becomes an allegorical component of the work, mirroring the layerings of history through which a given event is perceived.

The abandoned body cart can be read as a representation of history itself. In the one multicolored print that appears next to eight black and white ones, the cart’s wheels appear to be covered in gore. In three paintings on aluminum plates, the prisoner portrait looks as if it were stamped. A multiple in which one face represents many faces, it suggests evidence of a peculiar sort—an afterimage.

As the two images alternate, mutate, and shift, the iconic presence of the body cart grows larger and eventually overwhelms the portrait. It is this passage, from the deceptive security of individual identity to the profound transience not only of our corporeality but of our larger common fate, that gives this body of work its tension and its uncommon grace.

—_David Levi Strauss