The photographs in Mary Frank’s current solo show at DC Moore Gallery were made over the last three years, yet they evoke decades of history. The items in the photographs form a kind of collage: she composed new paintings directly onto the planks of her studio floor, then arranged sculptures, other works of art (some dating back fifty years), rocks, glass, torn paper, fragments of paintings, and fire around the new painting. It’s like she created abstract, autobiographical stage sets. Then she photographed the results.
I first met Mary through her cousin Paul Weinstein. Their grandfather, Gregory Weinstein, had emigrated from Russia in the 1870s and started a multilingual printing company on Varick Street, a business Paul still runs today. I met him in the early days of the Jazz Loft Project through David Levy, the former director of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. David told me that Paul was “a finisher,” someone who could help me organize a complicated New York project from my home base in North Carolina. That proved to be true: among other things, the seed of a four-year collaboration with Sara Fishko and WNYC on the Jazz Loft Radio Project came from a public event Paul threw for me at the Center for Jewish History on Sixteenth Street in 2005.
One night around that time, Paul and I were having dinner downtown. I told him I’d spent the afternoon with photographer Robert Frank in his Bleecker Street studio. “My cousin Mary used to be married to him,” Paul said nonchalantly. I startled to attention, the small town of New York City revealing itself to me once again. Until then I only knew Mary Frank as a figure in a photograph. She was the beautiful, exhausted young mother in the car with her two children at the end of Robert Frank’s The Americans—the woman keeping their kids fed, clean, and happy on the road, while her husband completed the work that would make him immortal in the history of photography.
I visited Mary last November at her sixth-floor studio and home on the north side of West Nineteenth Street. The space contained art, objects, and all kinds of materials, as well as a Ping-Pong table and grand piano and a solar cooker soaking up the afternoon soon that poured through the eight-foot windows. Her husband, the musicologist Leo Treitler, remained in his office after a brief, friendly introduction. An assistant was working quietly on a computer. Squash was roasting in the kitchen, and the aroma filled the apartment, as did the warm early winter light. On the kitchen counter there was a Post-it note marked with blue ink: “Leo, today sometime, please squeeze in playing me a mazurka or whatever else you think is beautiful.” When the squash was ready, Mary offered me a piece.
SHE WAS BORN MARY LOCKSPEISER in London in 1933. Her mother was a painter and her father a musicologist. She and her mother emigrated to New York in 1940 to escape the war. Mary began doing artwork in her mother’s shadow, and in the late forties she studied dance with Martha Graham. She also trained for a year to be a circus performer. At age seventeen, she married Robert Frank and gave birth to their son, Pablo, the next year. Their daughter, Andrea, was born three years later. In the mid-fifties, Mary studied drawing with Hans Hoffman and also took up sculpture. She and Robert divorced in 1969.
Neither Pablo nor Andrea made it to middle age. Andrea died in an airplane crash in 1974, and Pablo of Hodgkin’s in 1994. One of Mary’s new photographs shows a snapshot of the children in an arrangement that includes pieces of slate, a figure of a grieving woman, a drawing of two cheetahs running side-by-side, paintings of rocks and mountains, and a cream-colored circular line drawing that recurs in another of the new photographs. The cheetah image I recognize from Shadows of Africa, her 1992 book with Peter Matthiessen. She calls the photograph Every Night When the Sun Goes Down (Pablo and Andrea).
Paul had introduced me to Mary as a biographer of W. Eugene Smith. She had memories of Smith, and my visit that day was to hear them. She told me that Smith often wrote letters to her and her ex-husband from Africa when he was there working on a photo-essay on Albert Schweitzer for Life in 1954. She used a phrase to describe Smith that I haven’t heard in fourteen and a half years and nearly five hundred interviews researching him: touching. “You could feel that everything was a struggle for him,” she explained. “It was touching to witness that effort and struggle.”
I found Mary Frank to be generous, playful, and tender at the same time she was understated and exacting. I grew curious about her work, and she showed me her new photographs, which beg for an autobiographical elaboration she quietly dismisses, saying only, with a laugh, “It’s much better if viewers of art are asked to work hard.”
As I was packing up to leave, Mary’s little dog emerged. “Do you want to see a trick?” she asked. She pulled out a Hula-Hoop with paper flames taped to it. She held it low and the dog leaped through, delighted, and then back through it from the other side.
TWO WEEKS AGO I visited Mary’s show at DC Moore. When I returned home to North Carolina, I called photographer, filmmaker, and musician John Cohen, who is currently making a documentary film about her. He has known Mary since the fifties. “There’s something about her, and the only word I can think of is magic,” he told me. “It’s more than beauty, although there is that. Photographers like Walker Evans, Elliott Erwitt, Ralph Gibson, myself, and others were drawn to photograph her. When she was with Robert, she was as fascinating as he was, if not more so. That magical, mysterious quality is in her work, too. It comes from a deep, subconscious place. There are characters and figures in her work that are still around from fifty years ago, but she’s never stuck. The characters mature and evolve. It’s a visual language she created on her own. There’s feminism and nature and ancient mythology, but to say those words limits what her work really is. There is a tremendous sense of personal biography, and there’s tragedy, but it’s not spelled out. It’s left to the viewer to bring their own biography to it.”
I called Mary to ask her what kind of work she would do next. “I really love drawing from life, and I haven’t done that in a while,” she answered. “I’d like to continue with the series of photographs, working with fire, water, and ice. I also have some unfinished paintings, some recent ones and some from many years ago. I’d like to finish the old ones in ways I couldn’t have done when I started them. But all of this is conjecture—because who knows? Decisions are like butterflies. Their tongues are like watch springs, coils. Butterflies go from one flower to the next looking for nectar, extending their coils, testing every flower. I’m looking for nectar, too.”
Mary Frank’s “Transformations: Wood Sculpture, 1957–1967 and Recent Photographs” runs through June 4 at DC Moore Gallery, New York.
Sam Stephenson is the author of The Jazz Loft Project. He is currently at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Check back soon for more of Stephenson’s dispatches.