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JACKI LYDEN, host:

We recently spent the day with the artist Mary Frank, who is unpacking her work at her New York gallery.

(Soundbite of crumpled paper)

Ms. MARY FRANK (Artist): That one and this one.

LYDEN: An acclaimed painter and sculptor, Frank's works are part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney and museums around the country.

So, Mary, we're here in preparation for your exhibit, at your gallery - The DC Moore Gallery on 5th Avenue, between 56th and 57th in Manhattan. And we just pulled out - you've just pulled out a lot of these portraits. And the effect is that all these portraits are talking to one another and to us. It feels noisy in here in some strange way.

Is it like that to you? Did the…

Ms. FRANK: Well, I think, I particularly last seen among the wall. I think some do somehow have odd or even cantankerous conversations with others. But some were also very silent. And I hope they're very varied.

LYDEN: The new show is called "Near and Far." It features paintings and some 50 portraits in charcoal and pastels on paper. Some of the faces in the portraits are depicted with animals. There's an antelope around the head, a deer on a shoulder. There are also portraits of Frank herself, her husband and her children - both of them have died. She's a delicate, willowy woman of quiet energy, with graying hear flowing(ph) down her back. She's about to turn 75. She took us for a visit to her enormous loft in New York's Chelsea neighborhood.

Ms. FRANK: You want tea or something, or just?

LYDEN: Love some.

Ms. FRANK: Yes, she would.

LYDEN: Mary Frank came of age in the New York art world of the '50s and '60s, when everyone knew everyone. William DeCooning was a neighbor; Saul Steinberg, a friend; Diane Arbus, a pal. But Frank went her own way. Painting figures where others painted abstractions, inspired by ancient art like cave paintings, masks and mythology. The raw material for her art is found in the bookshelf over her bed in her notebooks.

We're looking at really, just a whole case-full of your sketch books. Looks like they start packing '69, I'm seeing and…

Ms. FRANK: Well, this is, I think, from being in Rome. So this is recent, all these people way up on the top of columns, cathedrals, towers. Some have halos. Many have huge swirling stone robes - very heavy. But still they insist on the extreme contrapposto, you know, the position where one knee is forward and the shoulder is back so they're very activated, what can they say after all these years - all these stone sculptures.

LYDEN: I'm noting you would hate to be without a notebook going anywhere, right?

Ms. FRANK: Yeah. I generally am sour(ph) when I don't take it. It's almost I think I don't want to take it because I just want to concentrate on what I'm seeing or people talking. But I'm mostly sour, it's a mistake.

LYDEN: Why don't we go sit down and talk? Let's talk out here.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Mary Frank was an only child, born in 1933 in London. Her mother was an artist; her father a musicologist. In 1940, she and her mother fled wartime England for Brooklyn, where Frank grew up. She didn't plan on becoming a visual artist.

Ms. FRANK: Well, I really always wanted to dance, and that's what I really studied much more than any art. With Graham, a little with Lehmann.

LYDEN: So you actually - with Martha Graham out present for any…

Ms. FRANK: Oh, she taught lots of the classes, yeah. Yeah, she was ferocious. She stood in front of the class once and she said, what was the first wall? And students where standing there, you know, and then…

LYDEN: The first wall.

Ms. FRANK: Wall. She said, what was the first wall? And someone said, the Great Wall of China or something, you know, some place in Africa. And she just stood there and looked around and then all of a sudden, she picked up her arms like this and put them in front of her chest.

LYDEN: You're crossing your arms in from of your chest now.

Ms. FRANK: And then she clasped in front and stood there, and said, first wall.

LYDEN: Oh.

Ms. FRANK: And, of course, it's - the human. But it was, I think, for me, particularly, because I work so figuratively, you know, sculpture, drawing. It felt like a kind of knowledge of the body that would be very different than if I'd just studied from life.

LYDEN: From models.

Ms. FRANK: Yeah.

LYDEN: For examples…

Ms. FRANK: Which I did also a lot, mainly on my own, but…

LYDEN: I don't want to make too much of early childhood because all our childhoods are distant but also somehow profound. But at one point, your mother, she had a doll's head that fascinated you for decades.

Ms. FRANK: It wasn't a head. It was a photograph of a small clay head. And it was haunting - actually, haunting. It still is, in my mind. There's a very compelling quality of sadness that was absolutely genuine.

LYDEN: Later on, you would say that heads are really, really difficult to do.

Ms. FRANK: Well, yes, of course. I mean, look at our heads. This is just endless. I once was drawing an older man in a train. And he would be really probably what would be called ugly - not just not good-looking.

LYDEN: Really?

Ms. FRANK: I do him for a long time because we both were on the train long time. Finally, he got up and I was furious and very disappointed because I wasn't - I wanted to draw him more. By the time halfway through, I realized, you know, if you're drawing someone, no one is ugly, whatever else they are, because it's a phenomenon to be able to really gaze at a human face.

LYDEN: Mary Frank has created her imagined world in clay, wax and many media. She made a list, recently, of some of her subject matter: children, women swimming, men coming out of waves, ships…

Ms. FRANK: Ships without oars, trees, mazes, caves with water reflections, shadows - many, many shadows.

LYDEN: Why are you struck by what isn't there?

Ms. FRANK: I did very little of groups of people.

LYDEN: Why? Do you know?

Ms. FRANK: I don't know why because I don't even know why a lot of things that I do. They're what comes and what I remember.

LYDEN: One of Mary Frank's most profound memories is of isolation. As a teen, she fell in love with and married at 17 the Swiss photographer Robert Frank. She followed him to Paris under the false pretense of visiting her estranged father. Opposed to his daughter's marriage, her father had her committed to a French asylum.

Ms. FRANK: Yeah, I was put in, basically, solitary. First, they told me I could sit in the garden. But they took me up and then I didn't really see anyone. I mean, they brought food. It was very frightening. I had a little piece of paper and I wrote all the poems I could remember but then I ran out of paper. And then one nurse gave me a little bit of wool and knitting needles, I mean. And I think I know I knit. And I knit the wool and pulled it all out and knit it and pulled it all out. And I think had, you know, fantasies of Madame (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRANK: I mean, it was - it's terrible.

LYDEN: I'd like to ask you this question that I believe you have raised. Where does experience go? Is that a conscious daily question for you - something you work with?

Ms. FRANK: No. But I do - at times, I do really think about it. Wondering how it gets transformed, you know, in your life, in relation to work, in relation to other the people, in relation to whatever it is you feel connected to.

LYDEN: And experience - both tragic and uplifting - does get transformed in Mary Frank's works. Those of her late children appear as portraits in the show, though it's been some years since she's drawn them.

At the gallery, Frank pulled out a painting she especially wanted us to see. It showed a large woman swimming in a vast green ocean, carrying a tiny child on her back. And the inescapable thought is that it might be a metaphor for Mary Frank herself.

In her notebooks, she sometimes keeps list of what art is for and the list is ever changing.

Ms. FRANK: To comfort the dead and awaken the living, to know migrations, of seasons and birds and fish, to feel the power of color and shape, and to fill an unspoken hunger for community. To give courage, use the heart to risk and never be afraid of tenderness or the absurd and to gather joy.

LYDEN: Artist Mary Frank. Her new show is called "Near and Far." It opens at The DC Moore Gallery in New York City on January 9th.

For a preview of her work, visit our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: And you're listening to Rossini's opera "The Thieving Magpie," which Mary Frank says she listens to when she paints.

And we close today's show with these parting words from Jack Kerouac: The only people for me are the mad ones. The ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time. The ones who never yawn or say a common place thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles, exploding like spiders across the stars. And in the middle the blue center light pop, and everybody goes.

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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