abstract yellow painting
Oculus, No.21

About Frank Mann

Frank Mann is an American artist interested in vision and visual perception. Mann has exhibited widely, with major exhibitions in New York, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, and Berlin. He has received awards for international exhibitions and biennials as well as the Sandro Botticelli prize, presented by the EA Editore Publishers of Rome in 2015, and the International Human Rights Award, presented by the Italian Academy of Art of the World, in recognition of his significant artistic activities completed during 2016. He represented the United States in the Collateral Event of the 56th Venice Biennale, Italia Docet Laboratorium at the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto, San Marco, Venice, Italy in 2015, and in the Collateral Event of the 58th Venice Biennale, Personal Structures - Identities, at Palazzo Bembo, Venice, 2019. Mann’s work has been included in exhibitions on six continents and acquired by public and private collections in the United States, Asia, and in Europe. He has selectively collaborated with non-profit cultural organizations including ASCA, BAN, and COLAB in the U.S., the Association D’Art International of Mirabel, France, the i - AM Foundation of Milan, Italy, the GAA Foundation, Leiden, Netherlands, and ADAPI, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Mann worked as a studio assistant to Dorothea Rockburne. His first works exhibited in New York were at Franklin Furnace and Artists Space. He lives and works in New York.

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A Fusion of Abstract and Representational Art Depicts the Circularity of Life

In “Oculus”, a series of paintings, Frank Mann explores the act of seeing and depicts the circularity of life. He expands the boundaries between abstract and representational art, using a style that art critic Franklin Sirmans describes as a kind of stretching. It fuses outer configurations of shapes and inner psychic states and is part of an architectural format that Mann builds on and continues to evolve. Loose circular orb-like structures depict life’s flow. By doing so he creates leaps of consciousness and a new architectonics of form. Post-modernist John Ashbery does this in his poetry in works such as CAN YOU HEAR BIRD? and FLOW CHART. Previously, Mann derived his content from dream imagery, a subject also rich in allusions.

In “Oculus” the subject is vision itself and these muscular paintings show the outer and inner eye at work. These vibrant palette elocutions allow the viewer to fill them with his or her own interpretations. Thereby, the paintings evoke open fields of possibility, such as planets rushing across the Milky Way. He uses primary colors such as bright reds, blues and yellows, and other rich chromatic hues, such as orange and magenta, which he loosens and frees utilizing brushes and branches and applying the paint in a spontaneous manner. The inner process of the eye is externalized, so that what the artist presents is open-ended. Starting with the light of the eyes, the images are transformed in the back of the retina and then interpreted in the visual cortex in the back of the brain.

By visualizing this process, Mann conveys a variety of images related to stages of seeing and provides a richness of experience in ambiguity, imagery, and color. Painting from experience and projecting it forth, he provides a three dimensional inner trip and return to the surface. The plasticity of the surface gives them this three-dimensional look or one that charts shifts between two and three dimensionality. Therefore, Oculus is an inner vision of the body in which the tensions, a disjunctiveness between two and three dimensions, is always there.

Mann exercises freedom and control simultaneously. He is trying to give the sense of an oculus, such as the round opening in the dome of the Pantheon in Rome or a window penetrated by natural light.

Art editor Ed McCormack compares Mann to František Kupka, due to Mann’s preference for spherical forms and calls him and Kupka “kindred spirits”. In making this connection with Kupka, a pioneer in abstract painting, McCormack suggests that Mann is creating a new visual language. He also observes (In his review of an earlier exhibition) that “there is also a suggestion of musicality in his exquisite chromatic sensibility that imbues his compositions with a spiritual dimension of the most authentic kind.” It is therefore this authenticity that is important to him.

It is not surprising that Mann explores the eye, although he did not consciously choose this subject, but sees this choice as part of the automatic process. The word oculus is derived from the Latin for eye and similar to the word ocular, which means resembling the eye in form and function. These medium-sized paintings are suspended in interactive fields that suggest vision itself.

Mann has been working on this series for several years and continues to explore his pre-occupation with visual perception. He takes the viewer on a journey through a variety of phenomena, using automatistic techniques. “Oculus” then, represents Mann’s search for his own personal language, that gives freedom to the imagination.

In doing this art critic J. Sanders Eaton suggests Mann employs “chromatically luminous oils in which sensually rounded forms appear to allude to a host of anatomical forms and possibilities without sacrificing their abstract autonomy...” and that “canvases are noted for their buoyancy as well as luminosity” whereby “his exquisite draftsmanship creates forms that shift ambiguously between two dimensionality and spatial depth enabling him to interweave figure and ground with consummate grace.” These forms can appear hallucinatory when viewed, appearing as if bands of imagery are drifting and swirling in heightened colors. Therefore, Mann’s visual language, while abstract, alludes to the mysteries within the body in these stream of consciousness paintings. Thus the compositions have a most authentic look, one that is a natural consequence of his dedication to the creative process. Each of his paintings is a field central to post-modernist abstraction, and like Ashbery he is always pushing the boundaries of this field towards something as yet undiscovered, such as what one does in poetry when the poet says “I held the verb and fell upward.” Eaton also observes that “Since exploratory automatism is at the heart of Mann’s work, given the seemingly unpremeditated fluidity of his technique and the rhythmic quality of his compositions, form seems to be generated out of forms in an unending flow. Vibrantly colored spheres orbit each other and overlap, their very roundness moving the orb that views them and suggesting the metaphysical mating of the art object and the eye.” This is made all the more explicit by the Latinate mythicness of the name Oculus.

These open images, which follow the journey of the eye, are the result of a disciplined technique combined with an artful chaos that reveals to the viewer the greater possibilities of the physical and spiritual world. Mann’s demanding style suggests that he is a significant painter, one who creates an autonomous system for the arrangement and perception of things.

Sunlight emanates from the windows of his studio on East 34th Street where he creates these luminous works. Thus Mann’s process and his engagement with paint become a poetic language for the energy of light made visible. The paintings are surrealistic but still specific to his vision, one that creates an inner space in which objects have an anatomical reality, like the elements inside an atom. To achieve this he references the internal processes of the eye and states of mind somewhat like those of the chained prisoners in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, who when freed and brought out of darkness, visualize vision. Similarly, the imaginative rendering of the process of seeing is consistent in his work.

Therefore, Mann creates a dialogue with the viewer and an awareness of how to see something that opens the viewer up and creates discourse. He wants the viewers to be more aware of how they look at art and to be conscious of the process of seeing what is there. The emphasis is on personal invention. He thankfully leaves it up to the viewer to discover this for him or herself.

Dorothy Friedman August
Essay from the 56th Venice Biennale