Remembering Nancy Frankel (1929-2021)

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on August 24, 2021
Nancy Frankel with Whimsey, at American University Museum, Katzen Center, January 2019. Photo courtesy of Jacqui Crocetta

Remembering Nancy Frankel brings me back to an afternoon in the winter of 2011 when she and Sam Noto came to my office at Montgomery College’s Cafritz Art Center in Silver Spring.  She and Sam came to pitch an exhibit they wanted to do together of steel sculpture.  I was immediately taken with Nancy’s bright personality and fascinated by her history. Here was an artist who had studied with Hans Hoffman in New York in the early 1950s, who had personally known people working in that incredibly important moment in the history of modern art, sitting right across my desk!  This encounter resulted in the exhibit Steel: Color, Form, Concept that I curated at BlackRock Center for the Arts May through June 2012, but that was hardly the end of my association with either of these artists who were working together in Sam’s studio in Hyattsville. In 2012, Nancy was already 83, but she was still working with steel—something that both inspired and amazed me.

About five years later I had the extraordinary opportunity of curating Nancy’s retrospective at the American University Museum at the Katzen Center.  Working with Nancy to organize her works in multiple media from a seven-decade career that was still unfolding had it challenges to be sure.  But again, Nancy proved a delight to work with, sharing stories and pictures, old inventories, and her studio which was chock full of older work, and work in progress at the time.  I was overwhelmed at the turnout for the openings at the Museum, as well as for the artist’s panel some weeks later.  The outpouring of love and support that I’ve seen since her passing is testament to how much she was loved as an artist, mentor and teacher by all who worked or studied with her in the Washington DC region where she spent most of her life.

With few options for women artists of her generation, following her graduation from the Tyler School of Fine Arts in 1952, Frankel earned an MA in art education from Columbia University in New York.  She was later an adjunct professor of sculpture at Montgomery College in Rockville, and continued that practice in her own studio in Kensington, MD.  Although she worked primarily in three dimensions for many years, in steel as well as in wood, and other sculptural media, her background in painting and graphic arts gave her a love for, and an interest in color.  She, like her friend Sam Noto, often painted her steel works in brilliant colors.  Moreover, her oeuvre also includes a large number of two-dimensional works, both as tempera paintings on paper and graphite drawings.

Nancy’s sculpture was clearly rooted in the example of David Smith and in the tradition of modernist abstraction that began in the 1950s.   When working with steel, the artist’s practice can be related to Smith’s, but was in no way limited by it.  What it shared is a fundamental premise about three-dimensional form as emerging from the materials themselves, and in conceptual notions about form dynamically occupying space.  Questions of balance—of things seeming precarious, but maintaining balance—were also central to her thinking.   What further links Frankel’s work to that of Smith was her youthful spirit of invention, something akin to improvisation in music.  Indeed, in much the same way that modernist abstraction was related to jazz in the 1950s and 60s, Frankel’s work displays a similar attitude—working through a variety of solutions to problems of form and meaning within a creative framework.  This is particularly evident in her sculpture which, with its multiple variations on a theme, is much akin to jazz improvisation.  The titles of many of her works—Three’s Company, Impromptu, Totem—could easily be the titles of tunes on a jazz album.

The vitality of Nancy Frankel’s sculpture is a testament to the richness of her inspiration, whether it came from the hidden mathematical structures of nature or those inherent in music.  Embodying what she called an “organic geometry,” her sculptural work reflected her love of nature and the linearity of architecture, both the curved and the straight.  The artist told me that she felt these structures when she listened to music.  Many of her works represent an attempt to give three-dimensional form to what she heard in music.  A deeply spiritual individual, Nancy radiated her fascination with these things, as she found ongoing inspiration from them.  We are fortunate to have her large body of work remaining with us, and to have her presence in spirit in the lives of so many she touched with her life.