It’s never not apparent that this bio-doc from John Cohen is a labor of love — you can tell by the lack of objectivity and production values. But that’s not to say it’s necessarily a mistake to make a movie about a close friend, especially when your friend is an accomplished, emotionally layered, still unknown, and generally kick-ass lady like visual artist Mary Frank. (The film is presented free at Film Forum from April 16–22 with Tacita Dean’s JG.)
Well-versed in the aesthetics of ’60s radicalism, Frank spent most of her life hokey-pokeying in and out of New York’s downtown scene, cavorting with Kerouac and Ginsberg in between raising two kids and painting in her East Village studio. We get a topical sense of her trials, or what seem to have been the trials of her early career: a barely post-pubescent girl trying to establish herself as an artist rather than just an artist’s model while her Beat brothers were still penning roadside memoirs that portrayed women as diaphanous temptresses, squalling harpies, and almost never real people.
Frank is candid about her ambition — “The work, a lot of the time, came first,” she says about being a young mother, something most of today’s supermom celebrities would rather blog excuses about (here’s looking at you, Gwyneth) than just outright admit. She remains unprovoked, neither justifying nor apologizing, simply explaining the past as it was.
If only this documentary had more moments like this, or expounded on them in some way. At one point, Frank, whose medium consists of natural hues in a chic Neanderthal palette, addresses modern artists like Damien Hirst who have been known to portray nature as shocking. It’s pretty clear she has something to say about the next generation, but she gets cut off. In ways like this the film, while often tender, feels as fragmented as the dream “visions” that Frank credits as inspiration. Which is all very well and metaphorical, in art. But even documentary filmgoers expect some kind of narrative. And rightly so, because after seeing Visions, it’s easy to walk away feeling like you know of Frank, but still don’t know her with any intimacy. Still, the hints at a full and maybe tragic life are enough, just like her ornate triptychs are beautiful even when unopened. See it for initial exposure to a worthy artist, but don’t expect to crack the surface.