Editor's note: The following essay, with Endnotes, is printed with permission of the Springfield Library and Museums Association. The essay was included in the 256 page illustrated 1999 catalogue titled Selections from the American Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, ISBN 0-916746-18-6, pp. 221-222. In addition to the essay, the catalogue contains an image and provenance of the painting and an exhibition schedule. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in purchasing the catalogue, please contact the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Mary Frank, born 1933

Striding Woman, 1986

(Biscuit-fired stoneware, 26 x 8 x 13 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of the Fine Arts Council, supplemented by Museum Purchase Funds, 93.S01)

by Hollister Sturges

 

In 1975, the critic Hilton Kramer praised Mary Frank as "a magnificent anomaly among contemporary sculptors."[1] Today, she can be seen as one of the foremost figurative sculptors of her generation, the creator of a body of work that explores the most elemental human feelings -- love, loss, rage, despair, and the joy of being. Central to this work are the figures of women -- women walking, crouching, reclining, and women as goddesses, lovers and child bearers.

Frank's reverence for primary life forces leads her to fuse many of her figures with natural phenomena. Figures often merge with their surroundings, commingling with water and earth, or metamorphosing into waves, leaves, clouds, or rainbows. However fantastic her hybrid creations become, at their core they remain profoundly human. As Frank commented, "What I feel is to be human, what life on earth is, or might be. It is very important for me to find a vocabulary or series of images that feel strong enough to put all the feeling I have in."[2]

Striding Woman, a proud figure fashioned in reddish-brown clay, exhibits the energy and passion that characterize Frank's work at its best. On first impression, the wing-armed woman thrusting powerfully forward evokes the Nike of Samothrace, the celebrated Winged Victory that dominates the grand staircase of the Louvre. Like the Greek mythological figure, the forward stride and rippling drapery of Frank's woman project an archetypal image of strength.

But there is a tragic dimension to Frank's triumphant figure that suggests an altogether different archetype, one of anguish and despair. The head is tilted back abruptly to reveal an expressive profile of parted lips and jutting jaw. The blank eyes are directed upward, as if beseeching solace from the gods above. The anguished expression recalls that of Niobe, who grieved the loss of her children, or the face of one of Picasso's distraught women lamenting the carnage of Guernica.

While the faces of Frank's women register a wide range of emotional states, she has developed an ideal physiognomic type. The salient features of these heads are the broad, prominent brow, high cheekbones, full lips and strong jaws. When asked to explain the origin of the image, Frank replied, "1 like to think these heads come from a time before human beings were divided into different races."·[3]

However universal Frank's figures, they are also expressions of deep personal feeling and contemporary experience. The conflicting emotions of Striding Woman -- the joy and pain -- evolve from the ambiguities and complexities expressed in our own age. While the figure has energy and grace, its movement signifies an interior struggle. Here, physical motion, molded in clay, becomes a metaphor for human striving, the individual's endless struggle to overcome conflict, discord or tragedy.

Frank's virtuoso mastery of clay makes her work poignant and expressive. Striding Woman is built from several slabs. A central slab serves as an armature around which variously-shaped sheets of clay have been added. The clay may define broad curving planes or sinuous folds; it may slump from gravity or swell like a sail in full wind. While Frank varies the texture of her surfaces, she pays greatest attention to the external contours of her clay sheets, orchestrating them into a rhythmic harmony. She also accentuates the connecting points that join the multiple parts together. The expressive potential of this fragmented composition yields a fragility and vulnerability in counterpoint to the strength of the figure's physical gesture. Finally, Frank delights in drawing on the clay surface as seen in the incised contours of both arms and the right leg of Striding Woman.

Born in London in 1933, Frank is the daughter of a painter, Eleanore Lockspeiser, and came to New York at the age of seven. The most telling training of her formative years was her study of modern dance with Martha Graham. With Graham she witnessed the ability of gesture and movement to express the yearnings of the soul, convictions that seem to have influenced her sculpture.

Although widely acclaimed, the art of Mary Frank is usually perceived as apart from the mainstream of contemporary art. She studied drawing and painted briefly with Max Beckmann and Hans Hofmann, but she had no formal training in sculpture. While this absence of training posed obstacles, it ultimately forced her to find her own resolution to the challenges of her materials. In 1969, she turned to clay, her favorite medium, and since then has created a large body of figurative sculpture that is distinguished by its emotional intensity, eroticism and earthiness.

 

Endnotes

1. Hilton Kramer, "Art: Sensual, Serene Sculpture," New York Times (Jan. 5, 1975), Museum of Fine Arts object files.

2. Hayden Herrara, Mary Frank (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1990), p. 81.

3. Conversation with Mary Frank in Lake Hill, N.Y., Sept. 26, 1998.

 

About the author

At the time of publication of the essay, these biographical notes for the author were included in the catalogue.

Hollister Sturges is executive director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. He is the former chief curator of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and former director of the Museum of Fine Arts and the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum. Mr. Sturges is an art historian, with expertise in 19th-century painting and contemporary art. His exhibitions and publications include Art of the Fantastic: Latin American Art, 1920-1987.


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