Sometimes (more often than you’d think) New York emerges as a small town. I barely knew Jason Polan personally—years ago, when I noticed him drawing me on the Q train, it was before I knew who he was or how many friends we shared. In the moment, I was too shy to speak up. Later on, when I got to know his work, I very much dug what he was up to, solo and collectively.
A day in New York City turned into a better day if you ran across Jason and his sketchbook the way it did if you spotted Bill Cunningham cycling past you in his blue French sanitation worker’s jacket and khakis and camera, before his death in 2016. The reassurance of an artist at work in the world, the knowledge that someone is looking. I placed both of them in the category of artists whose work depended on the constant human flow of New York as much as they fed its current, with their quick, obsessively observational depictions. They sized the vastness of the city to its most individual, returned images charged with affection.
If only Bill Cunningham had started an Upper East Side bike gang of roving photographers the way Jason invited strangers to draw with him at Taco Bell...! If anyone understood the need for creating community in a city of 8.6 million people, it is the person who set out to draw every single one of them.
On the weekend after Jason Polan’s death, I am back in New York and walking past the faded pink and gray post office on Canal Street which was allegedly his favorite—he was a frequent user of the U.S.P.S. On one exterior wall, an innocuous spot, leftover bits of packing tape marked the spot where drawings had been posted up in tribute and stolen (ah, New York!), but one photo of Jason remained, along with a laminated reproduction of one of his New Yorker illustrations from 2015, pasted over with bright Ellsworth Kelly stamps. Doesn’t it feel nice to write someone a letter?
Jason had written. Doesn’t it feel nice to receive a letter from someone? This is an advertisement by me for the post office.
A day later New York shrank again at a show titled “Solitude.” Well, half of it was titled Solitude, for the paintings of Charles Burchfield
. Dusky trees practically vibrating in his gouache gloom. Thunderstorms on railroad tracks. A gray paint-peeling room in a deserted house, looking out onto a grayer, rained-on world outside. Vast, forested canyons with slashes of pink and charcoal. A painting of woods he titled The Black Void.
They are the winter scenes of far upstate, where Burchfield lived, and Ohio, where he was grew up. Burchfield, the mystic and goth with a wife and five children, friend of Edward Hopper.
I’d been dragging a suitcase through Manhattan, realized I had extra time before I needed to be at Penn Station, and this is how I found myself accidentally alone in Solitude. But even Burchfield shared Solitude with another—the artist Mary Frank,
a fellow mystic, their work and lives separated by decades, the ecstatic and the mythic. It was a quiet day, a Tuesday morning. I followed the sound of voices to the back of the gallery where I was surprised to find Frank herself, perched on a bench, surrounded by two friends.
I recognized her right away. Three years ago when I and a friend had just finished seeing I Am Not Your Negro,
Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin documentary, and everyone in line for the next screening looked like characters from a Cassavetes film, eyes framed in dramatic glasses and masses of gray and white hair falling on the shoulders of their coats. Mary and her husband, Leo, had been among them—she had stopped me and struck up a conversation about the poster in my hand, a drawing I’d painted for a demonstration about Standing Rock—and she introduced herself. “The artist!” I said. “Yes,” she answered, “but I make protest posters in my studio too.” I didn’t know then that she’d been demonstrating for decades, marching with her friend Grace Paley
against nuclear war, her first child Pablo in her arms; or with other artists, as she told John Cohen in his 2013 documentary Visions of Mary Frank,
carrying painted figures from Picasso’s Guernica
to protest the Iraq War. We talked for a while then. “Mary Frank,” she repeated when it was time for her film to start. “Call me. I’m in the book.”
It was the most Old New York thing anyone had ever said to me and it happened in line at Film Forum. I was charmed. It’s too bad Jason Polan wasn’t also there hanging out by the popcorn machine surreptitiously sketching the whole scene; let’s pretend he was. The Manhattan phone book I wished for at that moment probably did exist—in Cassavetes’ day. Maybe she still had the same number as back then. I never got around to calling.
Instead, the months after dissolved—on that day in line we had been in the first few weeks of 2017. Now, at DC Moore in early 2020, we were on the threshold of another especially dark and divisive week. But here was Mary, excitedly leaping up as I wandered the gallery, to show or tell me something else. Later I would learn it was her birthday, February 4. In high school, she’d studied with Martha Graham; at just-turned-87, she still has a dancer’s energy, a kind of magic presence that echoes her works. “¿Or Was It Like This?” is the title of the show, an otherworldly answer to “Solitude.” I don’t know what Mary Frank’s Taco Bell Drawing Club might be, but if she had one, I imagine it would start by marching through the streets, running into and collecting dozens of her friends along the way and wind up foraging through a forest.
It was the final week of this show; her 1978 sculpture Swimmer
is currently on view at the Whitney. I thought about a book of Emily Dickinson’s poems she illustrated
years ago. I gravitated especially to her rocks, paintings of buffalo on pieces of bluestone collected from near her Catskills home, and little sculptures of deerlike people.
She has long merged humans with nature, or nature in her works (stones and photographs; funghi and pigment); she works in a visual alphabet of alchemical elements and images that are practically hieroglyphic. Living in Paris with her first husband Robert Frank, Mary would leave their baby with him and wander to the Louvre, staring at paintings of Daphne, the nymph turned into a laurel tree to spurn Apollo. She made her first Daphne of bronze in the mid 1970s, and other wooden Daphnes followed.
As I stood in front of a painting of a black sea,
Mary again appeared at my side. She told me a story of visiting Morocco in a town where there were no images. It was startling, she said, for someone like her, someone who lives in images. The only depictions of people allowed were of the king. Still, one day, she met a man who had an image of half a human—a picture of a girl turning into a fish. She bought it from him, took it home, and painted it into Tempest.
“It’s like Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid,” I started to say. “But in reverse,” Mary finished. “You never see it like that—the human becoming the animal.” A fish head with legs. A cosmic fish. Mary had laughed a little as we looked at it. She has the original picture at home. “People see it and they wonder,” she said. “People ask me all the time if it’s real.”