Hollis Framption: Complex Magic

By April Rapier (with special thanks to Stan Brakhage)

Hollis Frampton; Recollections/ Recreations. LagunoGloria Museum, Austin, August 4- September 29,1985

“Style is the adoption of a fixed perceptual distance from the object."— Hollis Frampton, from Brakhage Scrapbook"Stan and Jane Brakhage (and Hollis Frampton) talking"

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY assumed the organiza­tion of a retrospective exhibition of the films, photographs, essays and mixed media art of Hollis Frampton in the spring of 1982, a massive and difficult undertaking that had begun earlier at the University of New Mexico Art Museum and was subse­quently abandoned by that institu­tion. Frampton was actively involved in the project from its inception until his death, at age 48, of cancer. It was completed with the assistance of his long time companion and collaborator, Marion Faller. Thus the au­thenticity of importance granted and attention paid to the imagery selected for this exhibition — its inclusion and annotation — is never in ques­tion. (Stan Brakhage, a friend and colleague of Frampton, and an extraordinary independent filmmaker, remarked worriedly, "these posthu­mous attentions to the arts occur in a flurry.") It is clear that much con­sideration was given to curatorial discretion and restraint, especially with regard to unfinished work. Frampton carried out ideas over lengthy periods of time, with many works-in-progress transposed from one medium to another.

One is tempted, after an initial encounter with Frampton’s work, to either devote much time to reading and rereading of the attendant (and voluminous) texts and essays that accumulated over the years, or to dismiss the work altogether Yet so much is readily available to the in­volved viewer, most especially a sense of Frampton as complex interdisciplinarian, a seeker in constant motion. Laguna Gloria Art Museum is to be commended for mounting as abstract and difficult an exhibit (as well as film retrospective and lecture) as this: one feels compelled to spec­ulate not only on the average, prob­ably conservative, museum-goer's reaction to the work, but as to whether a favorable response with out prior, essential knowledge was possible, due to the referential (and appropriational, based on the struc­turalist movement of the 1960s) nature of the work. On a strictly superficial level, Frampton’s art and essays could be construed as un­fathomable, however, based on con­ceptual allusions, cross-referencing, and the ideology central to post­modernist theory — concerns regarding language, illusionism, textuality, and narrative.

Frampton’s genius (being singled out in the late 1930s as a child prod­igy led to a precocity that evolved, over time, into a voracious quest not only for information, but an outlet for its assimilation) returned him repeatedly to an endless search — itis improbable that any one medium could have been singularly satisfac­tory or sustaining. As a youth, his studies ranged from languages (and an ongoing dialogue with Robert Fitzgerald, the translator of Homer) to mathematics and literature; among his classmates at Phillips Academy were Frank Stella and Carl Andre, later his roommates in New York City. He also studied painting and photography during this period. He began corresponding with Ezra Pound in college (I9S6), and the two formed a strong bond the following year, with many hours spent in conversa­tion on the lawn of St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C., where Pound was confined. It was during this period that an interest in poetry and theatre developed. (He consid­ered himself a poet ... “tentatively” for the time being.) The various ref­erences to"secondary" projects and jobs are as astonishing and influential as the collected works. For example, he translated a seven-volume anthro­pological study from German into English, because Pound suggested that he do so. Sanskrit, Chinese, Rus­sian, and Greek were among the other languages he studied. Photog­raphy was ongoing until 1962, when he began "tentative experiments in film." Photography, from then on, would serve to fill in gaps, answer questions. He had become involved with computers (ideologies more so than generative systems) in the late 1970s, and continued with the inte­gration of video, film, and computer languaging in order that the gulf be­tween art and science be bridged. It was often said of his films, because of their analytical nature, that they were cold. ("Of course I get to be typed as an icicle, frosty the snow­man with has cinematic calculus, which mightily annoys me and hurts my feelings," Frampton said m an in­terview with Scott MacDonald in 1978.) It was a great source of cha­grin to him that artists found the sciences cold and unfeeling, whereas scientists perceived the arts as warm and emotional.

Perhaps one of the most resource­ful approaches to understanding Frampton’s ideas underlying the strange and complex films and pho­tographs exists simply in recognizing the difference in the way he pro­cessed thought and translated it. He found thought to be very sensual; he once paraphrased the French poet Gautier to Brakhage: "People might think the way they stroke velvet or a woman's thigh."

Each time Frampton abandoned a form, it was because he had lost in­terest in it; thus he was in constant search of a medium. He was one of the first to experiment in Xerography. In the film nostalgia (1971), in which he uses a hotplate to burn twelve of his photographs, in chronological order, he both haunts the viewer with the concept of memory and plainly evi­dences that he does not wish to be hung up in his past. (In 1969, John Baldessari burned all his paintings and sealed them in a wall in the Jewish Museum in New York.) Nor is there a more passionate example of revelation than the film Critical Mass. This brings up another aspect of the issue of his being unfeeling: there exists a contradiction in the encyclopedic thought that underlies the intricate systems of classification he applied to his vision and the Duchampian humor, the light and puzzling touch that defies the viewer (or reader) to take seriously what is being offered. In the preface to LesKrims' book Fictcryptokrimsographs, Frampton depicted, as he did in his essay on Atlantis re­discovered (Circles of Confusion: Texts 1968-1980), the power of photogra­phy: "... in an age without refriger­ation, the photograph was a kind of formaldehyde, superior even to words, serving to immobilize Reality until Culture should inexorably meta­bolize it into Knowledge." There exist innumerable anomalies in the form of endemic deviations, all the purest representations of thought processes through each of Frampton's periods (In particular was his departure from the norm when he taught: he created an entire semester’s course on the films of Brakhage, for example.) The most potent and revealing clue came by way of anecdote, again from Brak­hage: although Frampton had an extremely dry wit (and attitude in general), he was a sloppy wet kisser.

In all likelihood, the visual repre­sentations of so prodigious a mind can ultimately only serve as notation of concept, rather than as end in itself; in this case, althought sheer output attempts otherwise, the oeuvre, when called upon to stand alone, generally fails to live up to the methodology that preceded it, and the myth that accompanies. Another contradiction exits between the joy
of listening to such a dotty mono­logue, the running conversation reminiscent of an elderly, charming relative filled with and driven nuts by useless and fascinating information imparted in pedantic delivery, and the depressing futility of such meticulous thought. The ambiguity that characterizes much of the photogra­phy is magnified by the master-narra­tive style of the accompanying texts and titles. (He wrote a great deal for such publications as October and Art Forum.) Yet the more ambiguous the image, the more powerful and lasting it is. For example, "7, 1963." from the nostalgia portfoliois a shot of a win­dow taken from below. One sees a reflection in the shape of a chandelier, an ornate ceiling; not much informa­tion beyond cliché is imparted. Then, slowly, one becomes aware of a sen­tence written on the steamy surface of the glass: I like my new name. It is wondrous that he sees the chandelier, which had been wrapped during the room's renovation, as reminiscent of the tents of caterpillars. It is also this casual sort of observation that begins to overpower the image, dominate the viewer's own formulations and dreams. Or perhaps Frampton saw things that he then denied the viewer access to via verbal smokescreens. It is an intensely compelling process nevertheless. Often, artists assimilate into their imagery what they do not understand; Frampton's definitions were absolute, thorough, influential, and as a result somewhat limiting. His parodies and puns were endless, and executed with regard, taking on such diverse characters as Minor White and Louise Nevelson. His irreverence was stylistic after the fashion of the 1950s and 60s impractically. "Ways to Purity," I959, is a series of twelve black and white photographs (most of the work, is in series) that chronicle the frequently traveled route between his apartment and Frank Stella's, above the Purity Diner. The pictures themselves are of found sites — interesting texturally but unmemorable. The series entitled ADSVMVS ABSVMVS:1982 is based on an analysis of William Henry Fox Talbot's work, and Frampton's concept of "two dif­ferent sorts of perceptual time": the historic and the ecstatic. The former reflects the more practical aspects of the image, including time; the latter (where the theory most closely con­nects to Talbot's pursuit of what he called "natural images,"), the more metaphysical, in which, "for an ec­static moment, time is not" (from Frampton's Circles of Confusion, the chapter called "Incisions in History/ Segments of Eternity") Each image in the series (color), dedicated to Hollis Frampton, Sr., is accompanied by the most engaging of the texts, at times rambling and possibly meaningless, but objective and instructive. The texts contain myth ("the common gar­ter is alleged to hear through its skin"), editorial commentary ("cuttle­fish (one of a pair of specimens cost­ing $1.39 purchased by the author at King Chong Co., Bayard St. Manhattan in November, 1981")), to scientific or ontological origins. The concept of time runs rampant throughout the work, and takes various forms: "Rites of Passage: 1983-84," with Marion Faller, is a series of twenty black and white photographs of a wedding cake topped with symbolic icons, pro­gressing from birth to death. The series begins and ends with an un­adorned cake.

An example of the double-edged parody Frampton was drawn to ex­ists in "The Secret World of Frank Stella, 1958-62." It was conceived as a spoof of The Secret Work of Pablo Picasso; he photographed Stella in­termittently for several years, contin­uing the joke with the intention of creating a "prize-cliché” (to him a "petrified notion of seeing"). In order that he accomplish this, the photo­graphs had to be bad." Number 52 of the series shows Stella in an alumi­num washtub facing away from the camera; it is soft, with motion, after Steichen (Frampton did not distance himself from influences). Others from the series portray Stella as movie star in trench coat and dark glasses, or sitting against a wall, terribly forlorn. The power of this series lies in its disparity. There are many por­traits of friends, artists, their paint­ings or studios, which have a catalog­ing spirit similar to that found in the color Xerox work (of canned goods labels, among other things). One en­visions a child enamored — over­whelmed by — a new toy or game, yet the images in their singlemindedness seem off-handed, shaped impul­sively. A fair amount of collaborating, borrowing back and forth of imagery, seems to be another undeniable mo­tivational force. For example, James Rosenquist needed a photograph of spaghetti, to be included in a painting; Frampton allowed the remaining plate of pasta to deteriorate and photographed the progression over the course of several weeks ("Spa­ghetti, 1964," from The nostalgia Portfolio, I971). The Reasonable Facsimilies and FalseImpressions series (1971, 1979) seem more developed; the for­mer includes Xerox collage, hand-coloring and text, the latter montage and Xerox.

Although much has been written on Frampton (mostly about his films, few if any workable definitions can be extracted. So much was said by him, the intention being to create, not finalize dialogue. Questions were ex­pected to arise from questions, as though this comprised the freedom, in discourse, of thought. The answers he gave, as absolutes or other ideological tracts, were playful, arousing, at times disjointed, in the process of becoming, not existing as givens. At times, it appears as though this core group of filmmakers and painters fol­lowed each other around, completely self-absorbed, marveling at the freedom they were able to devise; Frampton's work bears traces of this exclusivity. But he had a magical way of being in the world, and the col­lected works speak well of this. The magic lay in the constructs: he once said that birds have five songs — they say, "good morning," "I found a worm," "fuck me," "get out," "good night." Therein one discovers an eminently sensible, ordered magic, approachable from any discipline or point of view.