As the wife of artist Robert Frank, Mary Frank became an inspiration and a subject for many photographers in the art world of the 1950s. Widely regarded as a beauty, she posed for her husband, for Walker Evans, and for Edward Steichen, among others. So the documentary title Visions Of Mary Frank could be taken as a reference to images of her. But she’s also a renowned artist herself. The film, directed by a longtime friend of Frank’s, photographer and ethnographer John Cohen, is a deliberately feminist reversal, focusing not on other people’s visions of her, but on her own visions and work, and her life as an artist.
In line with that goal, the film is almost entirely concerned with Frank’s own words. An art-expert friend stops by and talks about how her work is less chilly than Damien Hirst’s, but for the most part, Frank is her own interpreter, discussing how the brush technique in her drawings is influenced by Zen paintings, or explaining that her horizon lines are influenced by sign language, or declaring she believes art should “comfort the dead and wake up the living.”
Her work doesn’t always support Cohen’s positioning of her as a great artist. Frank’s art adopts a position of semi-primitive mysticism that can be either affecting or cloying, depending on the particular piece and/or the particular viewer’s patience with such conceits. A sculpture of a woman’s body composed of multiple fragments, arranged on the grass with the head upside down, has some of the broken-doll wrongness of Cindy Sherman’s photographs, made even more disturbing by its three-dimensional presence and solidity. On the other hand, a painting of a surfer looks like a blown-up tourist postcard, banal in both conception and execution.
While the limits of Frank’s visions undermine the film’s message, they also open up space for other kinds of interests. Since the art isn’t overwhelming, other aspects of Frank’s life take on equal weight or importance. She talks about how hard raising children was when she was a 17-year-old artist, and her regrets over the ways her art sometimes came before her kids. She discusses her activist work marching against the Iraq War, and providing solar cooking equipment to those without fuel. She remembers her friend, artist Margaret Ponce Israel, and ends up repeating her name over and over while trying not to weep. And in one of the film’s sweetest scenes, her current husband, music critic and composer Leo Treitler, talks about how her work has influenced him. Art in their home is part of the regular, everyday rhythm of life.
So the title isn’t quite the reversal it initially seems. Visions Of Mary Frank is about Frank’s art, to some extent, but it’s also about the rest of her life, and about Cohen’s view of her as artist and friend. The film isn’t so much a vision as a conversation, and it isn’t revelatory, but it’s engaging.
Visions Of Mary Frank is being shown free of charge at Film Forum in New York with Tacita Dean’s 26-minute short “JG,” a resolutely non-narrative film that juxtaposes images of landscapes, machinery, and animals with sporadic voiceover readings from the work of science-fiction author J.G. Ballard. As with Ballard’s work, the intermittently arresting ideas are somewhat undermined by the avant-garde pretensions.