by Edward M. Gómez

Mary Frank says that, nowadays, at the age of 91, she moves more slowly, more attentively, and with a heightened sense of awareness of the passing of time. That observation is deeply sincere, even urgent, as she pronounces it.

However, to art lovers who are familiar with the decades-long evolution of her multifaceted oeuvre and the ideas that have informed and shaped it, that remark might sound a bit ironic, too.

The artist Mary Frank in her studio in New York, March 2024. Photo by Edward M. Gómez

That’s because, as much as Frank’s art has been influenced by her interest in history, culture, society, language, human relations, and countless literary and poetic themes, along with a preoccupation with nature and its forces, time itself has long been one of Frank’s enduring subjects.

It has also served as an intangible raw material of her art. Coursing through all of her creations in painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, ceramics, and genre-blending, mixed-media everything is the artist’s abiding fascination with the ineffable character — and life-shaping power — of time.

Born in London in 1933, Frank and her parents later moved to the United States. Her American mother, Eleanore Lockspeiser (1909–1986), was a painter; her British father, Edward Lockspeiser (1905–1973), was a musicologist and art critic. At first, Mary lived with her maternal grandparents in Brooklyn, New York, and in the 1940s studied modern dance with Martha Graham. She earned admission to New York City’s prestigious High School of Music and Art and, as a teenager, with great interest, continued studying dance.

Mary Frank with her new series of color self-portrait photos, in which she poses, holding up some of her old, painted-paper masks, obscuring her face. Photo by Edward M. Gómez

In the 1950s, in New York, she studied with the influential painter-teachers Hans Hofmann and Max Beckmann, both of whom, like their student, had immigrated to the U.S. from Europe. In 1950, in New York, she married the Swiss photographer Robert Frank (1924-2019), whose groundbreaking photobook, The Americans, was first published in France in 1958 as Les Américains. Mary and Robert separated in 1969; their children, a daughter and a son, both died as young adults. Those events profoundly affected the two artists’ lives and, in tangible ways, their respective approaches to making art.

A few months ago, during a visit to her studio in downtown Manhattan’s Chelsea district, Mark Frank told me, “As you can see, for many years now, I have regularly gone back to older works of mine and revisited their themes and, often, literally taken parts of them and created new works with them. People talk about ‘works in progress.’ For me, every work is always, in some way, ‘in progress.’ Sometimes physically, but also, over time, sometimes the meaning or meanings of a particular work of art can change. That’s an interesting kind of ‘in-progress’ characteristic, too.”

Mary Frank in her studio, playing around with some of her hand-painted paper masks. Her new series of photo-portraits features these dramatic pieces in leading roles. Photo Edward M. Gómez

In books like (Eakins Pilgrimage: Photographs by Mark Frank (Eakins Press Foundation, 2017), Frank brings together her own painted-paper elements and parts of her own paintings in still-life set-ups that are far from conventional still lifes. Instead, they resemble dreamscapes or ambiguous images from dreams that have been captured like still photos from movies.

During my recent visit to the artist’s studio, the purpose of which was to discuss her forthcoming, third chapbook-format collaboration with the environmental activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams, which will soon be published by the New York-based Eakins Press Foundation, I spotted something alluring lying on a ping pong table that had become a catch-all surface for papers, measuring tapes, and assorted art-studio stuff.

Photos from Mary Frank’s new series of mysterious portraits. Photo by Edward M. Gómez

“Mary, what are these?” I asked as I gently leafed through a stack of large-format, inkjet-printed color photographs lying in flat boxes on that table.

“Ah, those!” the artist replied, as though she had stumbled upon a plate full of half-eaten sandwiches she had inadvertently left in a small pile of clutter weeks ago.

She explained, “Those are one of my latest projects, a series of photos made featuring painted-paper masks I made years ago. I came across them and, well, as always, I started playing around, and these new photos emerged.”

More images from Mary Frank’s new series of portraits featuring her older, handmade masks. Photo by Edward M. Gómez

In the new color photos, Frank faces the camera as she holds up her handmade masks, obscuring her face and calling attention to the colors, textures, shapes, and drama of the visages her somewhat fragile artworks depict. These images are curious, mysterious self-portraits. They also perfectly capture the palimpsest-like character of her art-making method, in which the artist is constantly revisiting her own past ideas and productions.

“I enjoyed making them,” Frank observed, adding, “I enjoyed rediscovering those masks and giving them a new life, new meanings, new energy.”

Frank is not an art-maker who adheres to the dictates of any particular modernist style book nor a creator who slavishly employs postmodernist “strategies” to guide her more intuitive, experimental, joyously hit-or-miss approach to mixing things up.

After all, who needs a “strategy” when your 91-year-old mojo is working in overdrive, and your creative spirit is on fire?

The takeaway from my visit with this powerhouse who is certainly fibbing when she says she sometimes putters around her studio: Don’t pay any attention to young Mary Frank when she says she’s moving slowly.

[Scroll down for more photos from Mary Frank’s studio.]

More images from Mary Frank’s new series of portraits featuring her older, handmade masks. Photo by Edward M. Gómez
The artist Mary Frank observed, “I enjoyed rediscovering those masks and giving them a new life, new meanings, new energy.” Photo by Edward M. Gómez