Film Review: Visions of Mary Frank

Deeply loving, if too slight, documentary about one of the great beauties of the New York art world, who always forged her own path.

New York artist Mary Frank has always resolutely gone her own way, from the days of Abstract Expressionism when she began through every succeeding chic art movement, and John Cohen's affectionate documentary celebrates her staunch individualism. Frank’s earnest work, in a variety of media, is at times powerful but often rather cloying. With its leitmotifs of flying figures, grieving women and animal imagery, it has always been highly accessible—or, as a friend tells her, "hot in a cool world."

A known art-world beauty, darkly voluptuous, Frank was also a muse early in her life, photographed by such as Edward Steichen, Walker Evans, Joel Meyerowitz, former husband Robert Frank and others. Longtime friend Cohen trains his camera squarely on her, as she discusses her life and career, and it's a lucky thing that, like her work, she's accessible, intelligent, warm and forthcoming.

About most things, that is. Little is offered about Frank’s early life, born in London to an American painter mother, Eleanor, and a British musicologist, Edward Lockspeiser. Of her marriage to the important (and living) photographer/filmmaker Robert Frank, we hear almost nothing, apart from the fact that they were lousy parents, as many artists, who always put their work first, can be. Mary Frank is far more lovingly reminiscent about little-known artist friends like the talented Bob Thompson, who died young of a heroin overdose and was singular in the feverishly macho, 1950s-60s Manhattan art maelstrom in that he was black, and the imaginative clay-maker Margaret Ponce Israel, who rates a sorrowfully keening repetition of her name by a mournful Frank.

As we follow Frank from her Manhattan loft to her lovely countryside abode, we learn of her longtime political activism, particularly her protests against the Iraq War, and her current environmental obsession with solar cooking. She is now married to music composer/writer Leo Treitler, who appears briefly to say how her sculpture has influenced his work to "become more abstract." This too-brief film ends on a particularly sad note as Frank recalls the untimely deaths of her children, Pablo and Andrea, followed by a lengthy, silent contemplation of one of her pieces.

Visions of Mary Frank is being shown on a double bill with Tacita Dean's experimental short JG. Thanks to the support of the Ostrovsky Family Fund, the program is being presented free of charge at New York's Film Forum. Tickets are available at the box office (not online) on a first-come, first-served basis on the day of show only.

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