New York

Martine Franck, Tory Island, Donegal, Ireland, 1995, gelatin silver print, 19 5/8 x 15 3/4".

Martine Franck, Tory Island, Donegal, Ireland, 1995, gelatin silver print, 19 5/8 x 15 3/4".

Martine Franck

Howard Greenberg Gallery

Martine Franck, Tory Island, Donegal, Ireland, 1995, gelatin silver print, 19 5/8 x 15 3/4".

Featuring twenty-six photographs made between the early 1960s and 2008, “Pérégrinations” offered a retrospective tour of Martine Franck’s work. A photo from 1995, Tory Island, Donegal, Ireland, was one of the show’s triumphs. It portrays two girls holding hands in midair as they jump off a wall; they’re caught in an instant of infectious excitement—in a “decisive moment,” as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Franck’s husband, called it. The image is rich with striking formal achievement: The bright white dress worn by one of the girls contrasts with the dark shadows she and her companion cast, and the wall, the pale sky above it, and the narrow band of dull sand below it form three flat, seamlessly integrated planes. The girls stand out from this geometric backdrop in dramatic relief, a “humanizing” addition to a barren scene, one that takes on grand gestural significance. If the wall is a construction, the figures are an expression. Franck’s use of these figures as surrogate gestures, as expressive devices, suggests that, for her, painterly expressionism has become all too familiar and stale, and that only by substituting real things for so-called pure forms can she crack its hermeticism open.

In Franck’s work, human beings are peculiarly at odds with art. The children peering over the edge of the spiral staircase in Bibliothèque de Clamart, Hauts-de-Seine, 1965, are indifferent to its abstract beauty and formal “purity.” Likewise, in The Louvre Museum, Paris, 1978, a young woman stands with her back to Ingres’s painting Cherubini with the Muse of Lyric Poetry, 1842; she looks up and away from it, as though to something higher. Franck has said, “I feel concerned by what goes on in the world. . . . I don’t want merely to ‘document’; I want to know why a certain thing disturbs or attracts me and how a situation can affect the person involved.” The image of untroubled, carefree Irish children may ironically relate to “the troubles,” the conflict between Protestant and Catholic groups that was raging in Northern Ireland when the photograph was taken, with the wall alluding to the barrier, emotional and literal, that separated Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Graveyard for Stolen Cars, Darndale, Ireland, 1993, might also be linked to the troubles. In that image, cars, rather than the wall, represent morbidity and death.

Franck prefers photography because it—unlike painting and sculpture—seizes the living moment. Still, her figures have a sculptural presence, and she is fascinated by found texture. Djibouti, 1990, for example, features a dramatically twisted tree with a kind of primal roughness; its natural authenticity puts Abstract Expressionist facture to shame. It is a masterpiece of nature, not of man. Franck is not interested in living in an artistic dream, but in the real world of disquieting contrasts—the world of conflict symbolized by “Hadrian’s Wall,” Northumberland, England, 1977, and, in a different way, by the wall of isolated couples in Kyoto, Japan, 1978. As in all significant art, in whatever medium, there is conflict at the core. Suggestively rendering the tension, Franck makes this quality of great art even greater because it is not imagined.

Donald Kuspit