The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2011

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JUNE 2011 Issue
Art In Conversation

MARY FRANK with John Yau

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Shortly before her show, Transformations: Wood Sculpture, 1957–1967, and Recent Photographs opened at DC Moore (May 5 – June 4), Mary Frank invited Artseen Editor John Yau over to her studio to discuss the sculptures, drawings  and photographs she would have in the exhibition.

John Yau (Rail): I noticed that the earliest sculpture in your upcoming show is from 1957.

Mary Frank: Maybe, but I was working in wood before that. I mean, there are a lot of pieces that are gone; people bought some and a whole bunch got lost.

Rail: And you were 24 when you made this early work?

Mary: Something like that, yes.

Rail: And you started working in wood when you were in high school, right? It was in the studio of Alfred van Loen, a Dutch sculptor living in New York.

Mary: Maybe toward the end I just passed by his place and he had an alligator and a big terrarium and it was a nice scene there.

Rail: It was in the Village?

Mary: Yes, very close to where I lived, about a block away. It was on Ninth Street between Broadway and Fourth.

Rail: You grew up in the Village, near the middle of what was the art world back then.

Mary: But that’s not what I was doing mainly. I was going to folk dances, and dancing. But Alfred didn’t teach, he just let me use his tools.

Rail: He just let you wander in and use his tools and make things.

Mary: Yes, small pieces.

Rail: Have any of those survived?

Mary: Somebody has some of them, but I don’t think I really like them.

Rail: In your early 20s you start to work bigger, because by then you were going out to Provincetown, at the far tip of Cape Cod, and using wood that you found at the beach, logs and stuff.

Mary: And sometimes people had wood on their property where a tree was cut down, but quite a lot of wood was on the street and in the city then, but isn’t around in Manhattan now. Maybe in parts of Queens, Brooklyn, or the Bronx, when people are building or destroying something, then there are these big beams, mostly fir. Somehow I got people to haul them up into where I was living then on Third Avenue, just above the Bowery, around the corner from the Tenth Street galleries.

Rail: Did you show in any of the Tenth Street galleries?

Mary: Only once or twice at the Tanager. I was in a show with Louise Bourgeois and Trajan.

Rail: At that point there weren’t many people working in wood. Michael Lekakis was one.

Mary: Yes. I hardly knew him.

Rail: And Gabriel Kohn and Raoul Hague, of course.

Mary: Well, Hague’s work I came across at some point. Really, I think that was a big influence. I thought they were full of life, yet contained.

Rail: The wood sculptures in your upcoming show were done between 1957 and 1967. Is that the only period in which you worked in wood?

"Ship Wreck II" 2009-11. Archival pigment print on bamboo paper 16 x 21¼".  Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, NY.
"Ship Wreck II" 2009-11. Archival pigment print on bamboo paper 16 x 21¼". Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, NY.

Mary: I worked with more than just wood. I was working in plaster before wood, a lot—tiny, and some quite large—and mostly I left them where I made them because they were too heavy. I mean, when I made them on the Cape, those got left. I have one very tiny one; maybe I’ll show it to you. It’s actually cement, not plaster, but I did work with plaster a lot and also painting it, carving it, and then making clay negatives and pouring plaster.

Rail: Did you know the work of George Spaventa?

Mary: I did know some of it and I liked it. There were some pieces that were very rich. I mean he loved Giacometti. Of course I did too, but he tried to do something else with it.

Rail: In Cape Cod you knew people like Jan Müller, Bob Thompson, and Gandy Brodie.

Mary: I didn’t see Gandy on the Cape, but I did know some of his work. In fact, I hardly ever saw him. Once he stopped me on the street and asked me if I’d ever had some kind of grant, and I said no, the other one was de Kooning. I certainly got the one de Kooning asked me about, and maybe I got the one that Gandy asked me about. They weren’t huge grants but it was wonderful.

Rail: And Jan Müller was important to you. He creates a magical, medieval world, which is indifferent to ordinary experience. Bob Thompson was deeply attracted to, and influenced by, this possibility of creating an alternative world. That way of thinking about art is very different from what the art world became, its emphasis on the literal. It seems to me that you never felt like you wanted to change, or become assimilated.

Mary: Well, I showed from when I was very young, actually first by chance, at Poindexter. Pat Pasloff, who was married to Milton Resnick at the time, asked me if I wanted to have a show there. Someone opted out of a show they were supposed to have at Poindexter; I’d never even heard of the gallery. I wasn’t thinking of showing. I was just carving and drawing a lot, and they showed some wood pieces and some very small bronzes, and drawings. I mean I couldn’t say I wasn’t in the art world, or that I didn’t want to be, but there were ways that I didn’t want to be, certainly.

Rail: Well, I don’t read about you when I read biographies and memoirs. You seemed in it and not in it, because, as you say, you started showing at Poindexter, and have been showing regularly ever since.

Mary: And I showed with Stephen Radich for a number of years. He was a very elegant gallerist, who acted like he had no interest in selling, but he had a great love for sculpture. He owned a great Rodin, “Iris, Messenger,” and he had a great white Calder, a snow one. George Sugarman showed there. He was working in wood, of course, and then painting it, not initially but after. Yayoi Kusama showed there. Radich was from Yugoslavia, and sometimes we used to go out and dance the Twist. Carroll Janis was also a great dancer.

Rail: The art world seemed to have been de-centered then, and it seems to me that there is more of that now than there has been for a long time.

Mary: Yes, I think that is right. I was in a show called Ten Independents. H. C. Westermann had work in it—the sharp meticulousness of them was their subject, more than even that it was a boat. Irving Petlin, whose work I like a lot, was in it. And it’s possible that Peter Schumann was in that show. I think he had one or two of those sections, with those extraordinary, powerful puppets. And other people, I don’t know who now, but I know the Guggenheim Museum said afterwards that they would never do such a thing again.

Rail: And they haven’t. And throughout all of these changes, and ups and downs, you made drawings.

Mary: Always, yes. It’s a big part of my work, hundreds of books of drawings, and separate sheets. It’s a huge part of my work. And I write in the books a lot too. I can’t imagine living and not drawing.

Rail: And you said that you initially studied with Max Beckmann in Manhattan, which surprised me.

Mary: Everybody is surprised not only that I studied with him, but that I did so shortly before he died. He was ill and always had that white face, but I didn’t know that. I hardly knew anything about him. Somebody told me about this school, called the American Art School. It was on 135th Steet and Broadway. The room for the students, and where he came and looked at work, was not very big. I don’t know why he taught there, because if ever I say that I studied with him, everyone assumes that it was in Brooklyn. But I never have met anyone who has heard of that school. I know I didn’t make this up, because he put his adz marks—which are not really a big curve, but they’re not straight either—on the work. And then after when I saw the work, I guess it was at MoMA, some time after I had studied with him, I remember looking at paintings of groups of people and stepping back, not just once, but six steps, because I felt they were going to fall out on me, that they were not going to stay in the painting, you know. They were frightening.

Rail: Then later you studied with Hans Hoffmann.

Mary: Yes, I studied with him twice, briefly, and that’s where I met all those people. I studied with him I think when I was pregnant with Pablo, and possibly when I was pregnant with Andrea, but I was never painting there, and never there for big group critiques and things, but I was drawing and he didn’t come a lot. But I was interested in the students there more than him.

Rail: Jan Müller.

"Rainbow Figure," 1965. Wood. 38 x 18 x 15".  Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, NY.
"Rainbow Figure," 1965. Wood. 38 x 18 x 15". Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, NY.

Mary: Yes. And there was a painter Miles Forst. Do you know any of his work? He was very much in there, and I think he had lived with Billie Holiday. He knew a lot about classics and jazz, he knew a lot about many things, he was a container of knowledge, of a certain kind. Paul Resika was around, but I was not studying with him at that time.

Rail: What about Müller?

Mary: Müller had people who admired him a lot. Well, he had those 10 years to work: he always knew he was going to die, he never knew when. He absolutely lived with that. He had a kind of pacemaker before the ones they have now, some kind of thing in the heart that you could hear ticking. It wasn’t like what they have now, because otherwise he would have lived longer. But when they had that show at the Guggenheim, with the big paintings, and then all the beautiful little ones on pieces of wood from the beach, rounded edges. He strung them together vertically, and I read them top to bottom and back, gulping them as a thirsty person gulps water.

I’m always struck because I have known a number of very good artists who, for whatever reason, have shown very little, or not at all. It is terribly sad to me that because of chance, luck, or their geography their work isn’t known. And because their work isn’t known they are not in the mainstream. I used to live in a house near Woodstock, on Mink Hollow Creek, and whenever anyone would say “mainstream” to me I would laugh, because I saw all these creeks going to the Hudson, and the Hudson empties into the ocean at New York, but I’m up here beside this little stream. But this little stream brought down a bridge that we needed to get to the house. Otherwise, the stream was sometimes two-and-a-half, three inches of water, but when it brought down the bridge, it was bringing down the rocks, you heard the rocks rumbling down, under the huge noise of the waves of the water, to hear those rocks moving, was really frightening. And then bringing down big trees with it, and the trees were sort of horizontal, they certainly weren’t vertical, and then the branches sticking up, they looked like crazy ships with funnels, because I came on a ship from England that had vertical funnels. So that’s a little creek.

Rail: The Caribbean-born writer Jean Rhys considered herself to be a little stream contributing to something much larger.

Mary: It’s great to feel, I don’t know, not pride, but pleasure in realizing that you are part of such an ancient impulse.

Rail: Well, this leads to your recent work. Around two months ago, we were talking on the phone, and you said you did photographs that you wanted me to see. I remember thinking, What the heck is she up to? And then you said something more, and then I got intrigued and I came over. They’re consistent with your work, but they are not photographs of people or the landscape, and they are not set up scenes, like James Casebere or Thomas Demand, an act of mimicry.

Mary: I don’t know any of these people. I should look at them.

Rail: So often the situation in your photographs takes place on the floor of your studio here, or upstate, and the floor has been painted, sometimes with a face, a blue face that I thought of as pre-Columbian because of the shape of the nose. And then you put some leaves down, partly obscuring the face. And there’s a sculpture that you made that you put on top of the leaves—it’s of a small kneeling figure, with his hands on the ground. The photograph takes the viewer into this whole world where you have no idea what’s going on; it’s like a narrative without a story. You don’t know what the beginning is, and you don’t know what the end is, but you’re in the middle.

Mary: Yes, you are in the middle, and so am I.

Rail: Another thing that strikes me is that you don’t know what the rest of this world we are in looks like. Sometimes it feels tropical, sometimes it doesn’t— —

Mary: Some are in the snow, are very cold, or ashes, and fire.

Rail: It’s an elemental world.

Mary: Yes, I wanted to do a lot more in water, but I dropped my camera in the creek where I was working, but I want to go back and it would be very nice to work with sculptures, and sometimes my drawings in the creek.

Rail: So some of them have been done outside. I don’t think I realized that.

Mary: The snow one, and many with fire.

Rail: Right. So there’s this whole world, and a kind of simple way to describe it is that its mythic.

Mary: See, people have always said that to me, and I can’t say it’s not true. All I can say is it’s not my intention. But I don’t mind if someone feels that. Do you know what I mean? And it must be, because really everyone, that’s one thing they do feel. I mean it’s just that I can’t tell you what my intention is. That’s how it comes out, I think. If I get to know, it’s later, when I can look at a group of them, and they talk to me or, better yet, sing.

Rail: The photographs remind me of Easter Island. There is a civilization that you’re looking at some segment of, but you have no idea what the laws of that civilization are, and what the heads actually represent. At the same time, they are very different because they seem like an amalgamation of possibilities.

Mary: Partly because sometimes I am using very old work of mine—some years or older—and then combining it with the recent paintings on the floor. Not paintings on the floor, painting the floor, which is different. People think I put down a painting. But I’ve used pieces of older, fairly large paintings sometimes in the background, upside down, because I wanted some element of color, or a piece of a tree, but you wouldn’t know that is what it is. Then I’m using rocks, or a piece of a sculpture, or the shadow papers, to get that particular light.

Rail: One thing about them is that some activities happened and you’re not sure what they are, that the civilization seems to be, like all civilizations really, a mixture of disparate things.

Mary: The new and the old, they’re not born at one time at all.

Rail: Right, they’re not born at one time, and they’re not even born from the same tree. We like to believe civilizations are consistent, but they’re not, all you have to do is dig a little. Tempura, for instance, is a Dutch invention, and yet it is thought of as quintessentially Japanese.

Mary: And for me there is nothing stranger that I could have done than to take photographs. It was urgent. I didn’t have a choice. I wanted a record.

Rail: That’s the thing, there’s no object.

Mary: Only the sculptures at that time, because I can’t leave them there. And that’s why I decided to start using one of those cameras you buy in a drugstore, and then I took them to the drugstore, and had them printed. And actually the color was amazing. But then when Alan Hoffman started printing for me, he was printing first on photographic paper, and then he found this bamboo paper that is photographic and matte, which really changed things a lot. It was wonderful.

Rail: I also think they are much better matte.

Mary: Yes, the color just sinks; it doesn’t flash off at you like someone batting their eyelashes. I love photography, but I’m not crazy about that surface.

Rail: So they could only exist in this way. That’s the thing I’m trying to get to: they can’t be in any other form.

Mary: No, you could only take a photograph of them, and then you could only take a photograph at a certain moment or at a certain place. Some people ask me who took the pictures. I sort of scream, what do you mean who? You think I would show these if someone else had taken it, how could someone else take the picture?

Rail: Right, because the view is very particular. And it seems to me that once you get the setup you have to find the viewpoint as well.

Mary: Absolutely, and often I never do.

Rail: The other thing that strikes me, at least among the photographs I have seen, which must have been around 30, is that you didn’t repeat yourself.

Mary: Not so much, because with so many ideas and so many possibilities, also of using aspects of the gardens, or the woods, or the creek, or whatever else I can. It’s a rich alphabet.

"The Sentient," 2009-11. Archival pigment print on bamboo paper. 16 x 21¼".  Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, NY.
"The Sentient," 2009-11. Archival pigment print on bamboo paper. 16 x 21¼". Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, NY.

Rail: They also distantly recall the work of Richard Dadd, a Victorian painter who ends up in Bedlam after he kills his father. In the paintings he did while he was there, you feel like you are lying on the ground, parting and looking through the tall grass at something very weird and horrible that is about to happen, an execution or something. It’s a very dense, self-contained world, which somehow you’ve snuck up on, and happen to see.

Mary: It sounds like you are a voyeur.

Rail: In your work, as the viewer, you are not sure who you are. Its almost like you’re floating above the scene.

Mary: Well, part of that is that I’m photographing a lot down onto the floor. There’s no way I can get under the floor. Yes, that’s true, and of course that’s an aspect of quite a lot of the paintings too.

Rail: Yes, the feeling of being in the air and floating is consistent with your paintings.

Mary: It is. I didn’t think about it, but people have mentioned it, and I saw it. But I had another thought. I like the idea of not just that we look at paintings or sculpture, but that they look at us. Which is how the icons are. Whatever the piece is, what would it see? Even if it’s not a person with eyes, an animal or an inanimate–object. Then I began to think what would a piece I did 40 or 50 years ago think of being in this totally unknown situation, unknown to me and unknown to them? And what would they think of another piece of work? In other words, are they connected to the idea of time, but also connected to a community? Or are they this one, that one, and not a community?

Rail: You feel like it’s all slightly disconnected. And you can’t say it’s this, it’s all connected, or it’s that, it’s all disconnected. The world you make floats between the two. I think that happens with a lot of them. You’re not quite sure what the connection is. Even with the figure kneeling on the leaves on the blue face, they’re connected, but they’re not.

Mary: Well, people have often said when they look at them, where am I? Meaning them, not me. I don’t know where I am. In that way it’s sort of disturbing, the way people feel when they don’t know where they are.

Rail: Well that’s funny, because I think it was Wayne Thiebaud who said about Pollock’s paintings, that you didn’t know where you were standing when you looked at one, because there was no ground to stand on, and it disturbed him. And yours do that in a completely different way. Because you really don’t feel like you are standing in that world, you are floating in it. But then if you are floating, who are you? An intruder? Are you a bird, what are you? A ghost? An angel? You don’t know. And your body is always oriented and disoriented to what’s occurring. And then earlier you were talking about, because I have connected you to this, Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, and how creepy they are. They really get to some unsettling vision of life.

Mary: Some do, yes.

Rail: They have the logic of a dream. But it goes beyond that. Dreams are personal, and I don’t feel these are personal in that way. They’re personal, but they’re not closed-off. And the openness has been consistent in your work since the beginning of your career, it seems to me—the sculptures, the figures on the beach. There’s always a drama going on. You’re never quite sure what the drama is.

Mary: There’s often also movement of some kind, whether it’s human or water or whatever, and there are also things that don’t move at all. To me that’s a big drama.

Rail: In the ink drawings from the ’60s, you often feel, even when the figure is alone, that some drama is going on that you see, but have no access to.

Mary: Yes, sometimes when they’re all together. I wanted to show them that way. I didn’t get to, because they’d have to be pinned up. I hadn’t thought about that when I was doing them, but when I looked at them after, when I was choosing them years later, and I put a whole bunch down on the floor. That’s when I thought about it. There’s a man named John Cohen, a wonderful photographer and musician. He’s in the process of making a film on my work, bit by bit by bit. And we had them down and he was filming them like that, and then, of course, they became a kind of frieze.

Rail: Yes, they are like a frieze— —

Mary: But not when they’re alone, they’re not.

Rail: You have clearly looked a lot at Egyptian art.

Mary: A lot. Particularly the wood pieces. They have a presence that is uncanny. The barques—I made many solar or lunar barques. But more the wood figures and faces. There must have been millions of them that didn’t survive. They have a particular poignancy for me. The distance between the two feet. The hand that was once holding something. A flower.

Rail: I was thinking about this: as an artist who goes to a museum—I had a friend who always went to particular areas in the Met—you went to a particular area, which changed and shifted over the years.

Mary: When I was young and went to the Met, I would always go to the Egyptian section. I couldn’t get anywhere else, it was as if it was a magnet, I walked in the door and it went, whoooosh! And there I was again, even though I thought, “Oh well, I’m going to go see this or that.” But then later, of course, Chinese and Japanese art had an enormous impact.

Rail: Well, if you think of the first “Woman” painting by de Kooning, it’s clear he’s going to the Sumerian section. It’s like a giant block with a head, and you feel like it’s as solid as stone, though it’s made of paint.

Mary: Yeah, those are strong forces. Sometimes I think maybe it’s too much, but that’s how it is. I remember hearing a long time ago, when I was quite young, that in Rome, where there is a statue whose toe has been kissed and touched so much that the toe no longer looks like what it once was. I used to think a lot about how many times people have kissed that toe. Their mouths are not chisels after all, and neither are their fingers. I mean, of course, there’s saliva and all that sweat. But that that has affected a stone, a marble sculpture, seemed very fascinating to me. To wear something down.

Rail: It’s like the Spanish Steps. You feel like when you’re stepping on them that you’re helping to wear them down. You have become part of the parade of history and time. You don’t think about that in America. The handprints near Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood seem permanent, whatever that means.

Mary: Because it’s just cement, right? Yeah, that’s very interesting. Well in this country, where you get to see it is out West, the landscape, in terms of the gorgeousness of erosion instead of the horrors of it. Boy, is that powerful. I remember when I first went out to New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and I just felt myself get smaller and smaller and smaller, until I was hardly there. I was trying to draw; it was impossible. But then I didn’t feel bad to be so—it felt fine. It felt right. In Chinese paintings— —

Rail: The figures are always tiny.

Mary: I remember I used to tell students when they were drawing from life about how in Chinese paintings sometimes there are big mountains, big vertical paintings. And there’s a fisherman, a monk maybe, and he’s down at the bottom, and you have to look to see him. But if the title tells you “fisherman,” or “monk fishing,” you look for him. And you find this wonderful tiny figure with a fishing rod. And then they write in the book, The Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting, that if the mountains are not painted with qi (or energy flow) and the clouds are not painted and the brush is not really dancing, the fisherman will pick up his robes in the painting and hold his nose and flee. When I told students this, they thought I was this crazy woman. What is this teacher telling us about people running out of paintings for? That’s not helping me. [Laughter.] But I thought it was so terrific that the fisherman didn’t just stay there. When things were going badly, why should he stay there?

Rail: There’s a part of you that’s interested in the stage.

"Glacial Erratics," 2009-11. Archival pigment print on bamboo paper.  16 x 21¼". Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, NY.
"Glacial Erratics," 2009-11. Archival pigment print on bamboo paper. 16 x 21¼". Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, NY.

Mary: Yeah, a lot.

Rail: I thought of the Sumi ink drawings of people at the beach—that they were on a very plain stage. The actual place is bigger than a stage, but it’s a stage.

Mary: In a way, when you work from something over and over, there is a huge natural drama without anyone, and then one person in that space of course is huge—and tiny.

Rail: You do feel like the figure is standing in this vast space.

Mary: I’m glad if you feel that! Well, what could be more astonishing than where the ocean meets the land, right? And then it’s all shifting, anyhow, that meeting place is not just one place. It’s so extraordinary. People who live by the sea, they take it for granted. I was once in Morocco and a Moroccan said to me, I was south at the edge of the desert, and he knew of course I was American, and he said, “How could you live there? I couldn’t live anywhere the sun didn’t shine everyday. You don’t have a sky like this everyday?” It was absolutely inconceivable to him. He was practically saying he would die.

Rail: You feel like, in the Sumi ink drawings, there is a really sharp, clear sky with an almost blinding overall light.

Mary: I think on the Cape you’re getting absorbed yourself by light, because it’s coming off the bay and the ocean, so you’re getting a double shot.

Rail: Did you show on the Cape at all?

Mary: Yeah, I showed at a place called the Sun Gallery. Dick Bellamy was an old friend of mine. I knew all those people at the Hansa Gallery, but I never showed there. I don’t know how many years the Sun Gallery existed for. It was a beautiful, small gallery, right on the water.

Rail: So now that you’ve done these photographs, are you going to keep making more?

Mary: I would like to.

Rail: But you want to do something else with them.

Mary: Well, I don’t know what. When I say “something else,” maybe it wouldn’t look like something else. But more.

Rail: Didn’t you say you wanted water in them?

Mary: Yeah. I did hardly any. I have a tiny pond. There’s a real pond. That one gets so full of duckweeds that you can’t see its water. It might as well be a lawn or something. I’ve made a little pond. Sometimes I’ve put sculptures in the pond, partly in the water and then tried to do things with drawings. But nothing has been any good so far.

Rail: I want to go back to the photograph. I’d like to name all the materials in them, because I think that might be useful. There’s paper. Stone. Wood. Paint.

Mary: Yeah, burnt wood. Some stones are painted. Although you probably wouldn’t know it.

Rail: Plaster. Bronze. Clay. So every material you’ve ever used, basically, plus things you’ve brought in. Leaves, twigs, and snow.

Mary: And paintings. A lot. There’s a lot more I could use.

Rail: And for all of them I’m guessing that you find the image by moving things around—that you’re composing, placing, and finding.

Mary: Exactly. And continuing to paint and repaint many little paper figures, animals, on both sides, until they get thicker and become like sculptures.

Rail: And the paper is cut out.

Mary: Often there’s a leopard on one side, but on the other side it’s a tiger. But it could be much more different than that. And I don’t know what it is, but I’ve never made these little paper pieces before. It’s completely new.

Rail: That’s a new element. I did see it in one of the pieces and thought, I’ve never seen this before.

Mary: Yeah, they’re absolutely new. I’ve used paper a lot as stencils and monoprints. And the shadow papers. So it’s all like cutting.

Rail: But some pieces of paper aren’t colored or drawn on by you.

Mary: No, it’s the shadow papers. It was the paper left over from a little booklet that Eakins Press did of Jerry Thompson’s photographs. I was given some of it, and it turned out to be beautiful to cut and to let light come in.

Rail: Artists never throw anything away, it seems.

Mary: I throw away a lot! I throw away a lot of my work, too. Otherwise you’re in a sarcophagus of your own making. [Laughter.]

Rail: It’s intriguing to me, that process of always trying to use something that enters into the studio.

Mary: And not only things, but people. Like when I’m drawing portraits. You look at a person, in fact someone who I know well, and you think you know what they look like. Turns out I have no idea what they look like. Even if the drawing isn’t so interesting, I begin to find out maybe something of who they are, which interests me a lot. It’s the same way drawing animals. So educational in the best way. Though they don’t sit for you, of course, unless they’re sleeping. I’ve drawn llamas in the Central Park Zoo. One was lying down, seemed nice. She didn’t look like she was going to move much. All of a sudden the male came over and decided to make out with her. [Laughter.] While he was doing that, a third llama came—I think it was a male but I don’t know—then it had a conversation with the female, who seemed totally uninterested in what was going on. The male was very interested. And while all this happened a whole bunch of kids appeared, charging down, there was hardly anyone in the zoo then, and they were saying, look at what she’s doing! She’s drawing these fucking llamas! [Laughter.] What is she doing! They laughed their heads off. And I remember, I didn’t want to talk to them. I wanted to draw. But sometimes when I’m drawing something, most kids are not used to seeing people drawing, or if they are, they assume it’s a student. When they see what’s going on, they say, “Oh, my brother draws better than that,” or, “Why don’t you draw me?” So sometimes I do.

"Going," 1965. Ink on paper. 24 x 18". Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, NY.
"Going," 1965. Ink on paper. 24 x 18". Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, NY.

Rail: You can write in public and people might not know or care. But to draw or paint in public, you get noticed.

Mary: I’ve tried to be very, very circumspect in the subway, particularly. I once had a guy grab a sketchbook out of my hand at 42nd Street and run out of the train. For me it was an interesting sketchbook. I think he did it out of anger. I had been drawing him from an oblique, big distance. I was sitting at one end of the train and he seemed to be okay—but obviously not. It was like being slapped in the face, and on the subway, in public. And then to have the guy who slaps you charge out of the subway, gone. And everybody saw it. People gasped. It was so strange.

Rail: Yvonne Jacquette put her easel on a shopping cart. She was painting traffic signals. But if someone approached her, she could go around the block. And I thought it was so smart that she did that.

Mary: I once had a sketcher’s permit, I don’t think it exists anymore, to draw in Central Park Zoo, so I could come earlier, before the zoo was open.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2011

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