Hollis Frampton

When Hollis Frampton died, in March of 1984, he left a massive body of work, including hundreds of films, a series of remarkable essays and a history as a photographer which goes back to the late ’50s. The films have received by far the most attention: many of them have become landmarks of contemporary independent cinema, including the rarely screened Manual of Arms, 1966, a series of portraits of artists Frampton knew; Surface Tension, 1968, the first of Frampton’s inventive explorations of the uses of printed text in film, Palindrome, 1969, a beautiful abstract work made by chemically manipulating film stock; Lemon (for Robert Huot), 1969, a lovely Minimalist contemplation of a lemon; and any number of the better-known ’70s films such as Zorns Lemma, 1970, the first three parts of the seven-part Hapax Legomena, 1971–72, and sections of the epic Magellan Cycle, began in 1972, the 36-hour film that Frampton had nearly completed when he died. Frampton’s demanding writing, much of it devoted to photography, is less known than his filmmaking, but seems sure to develop a larger audience. Twelve essays, several of which originally appeared in Artforum, were recently collected by the Visual Studies Workshop Press as Circles Of Confusion.

The focus of the present, traveling show, “Hollis Frampton: Recollections Recreations,” is the least known of the three areas of Frampton’s work: what he called his “flat stuff,” his still photography and xerography. Curators Bruce Jenkins and Susan Krane worked closely with Marion Faller, the photographer with whom Frampton often collaborated during the ’70s (she and Frampton lived together from 1971 on), and with Frampton himself during the final months of his life; the result is by far the most extensive exhibition to date of this work. As interesting and enjoyable as it is, I cannot imagine that the show will shift our sense of who Frampton was/is. But the earlier photography does provide a useful extended background for the films, and the more recent work is full of Frampton’s wit and intelligence.

The photography from the late ’50s and early-to-mid ’60s has two primary focuses. Much of the work exhibited reflects Frampton’s fascination with art and artists. “The Secret World of Frank Stella,” 1958–62, is a series of 52 portraits of the painter—8 are included in the show—originally conceived, according to the catalogue, as a parody of David Douglas Duncan’s book The Private World of Pablo Picasso. Also included are selections from a series entitled “Official Portraits” (Stella again, architect Richard Meier, painter Walter Darby Bannard), and individual images of James Rosenquist, Larry Poons, Robert Morris, and others. For me, this involvement with artists is the least interesting dimension of the show—the portraits seem made to justify their own presence in a museum with the exception of the 12-part series “Ways to Purity,” 1959. Along SoHo streets Frampton discovers compositions and textures reminiscent of the work of particular painters, photographers, and sculptors—a section of a handball court suggestive of a Barnett Newman zip, for example, and “A. Burri/screen door,” “Motherweil/fish skeleton,” “Louise Nevelson/ stonework”—on his way to image 12: an old tenement building with the huge word “PURITY” and a Coca-Cola logo at the top. Our discovery that the purity we’ve been working toward is a commercial emblem gives the whole series a comedic punch line which undercuts the probably quite real reverence Frampton seems to have had for the artists, “Ways to Purity” is a young photographer’s confession of faith, but also a shaggy dog story.

The more interesting focus of the early photography is the involvement with printed texts evident in the final image of “Ways to Purity.” Later, this becomes a central issue. In She Was, also titled Terry, 1966, Frampton blacks out large sections of a news clipping to leave a sort of poetic visual portrait of a woman; the choice and spacing of the words that remain create a syncopation which is an obvious predecessor of the use of text in the final section of Surface Tension. For “Word Pictures,” 1962–63, Frampton recorded simple words—“air;” “corn;” "no”—found in an urban environment. The show includes eight of an undetermined number of such images. For anyone who knows Zorns Lemma, the middle part of which creates a temporal grid of thousands of such words, the historical interest of “Word Pictures” is obvious.

A gap of five years separates One Poons Dot, ca. 1965, the most recent of the early photographs exhibited, from Frampton’s reentry into still photography in 1970. In the intervening years he had become increasingly interested in filmmaking, producing 14 short films on his own and at times collaborating with others. This increasing commitment to motion pictures is commemorated in nostalgia, 1971, the first section of Hapax Legomena, in which Frampton burns a series of prints of early photographs while Michael Snow reads texts describing them. The nostalgia Portfolio, created for the present show, reprints the photo graphs and mounts them next to their descriptive texts, a presentation at variance with the original film, where we watch one photograph burn while hearing spoken the text describing the next one we’ll see.

Frampton’s interest in the still photographs of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Marey, precursors of motion pictures, is obvious in “A Visitation of Insomnia,” 1970–73, and in Frampton’s first major collaboration with Faller, “Sixteen Studies from Vegetable Locomotion,” 1975. Using long exposures, “A Visitation of Insomnia” captures the ghostly sequential movements of a nude woman in a manner reminiscent of the sequential photographs of Marey and Muybridge. “Sixteen Studies from Vegetable Locomotion” combines what we’ve come to recognize as the formal elegance of Muybridge’s studies in Animal Locomotion (1887) with considerable wit and a sophisticated understanding of the degree to which the camera view is at least as fully a construction, a fiction, as it is a revelation of reality. A series of amusing “actions” are attributed to a variety of vegetables—“Zucchini squash encountering sawhorse,” “Tomatoes descending a ramp,” “Winter squash vacillating” _which are then photographed during the stages of the actions against a Muybridgean grid. It’s easy to underestimate Faller’s importance in this series and in the other ’70s photographs, but in fact her influence is evident even in instances where it's not fully credited. The “Protective Coloration” series, 1984, for example—which reveals Frampton’s torso, in the same position against the same land scape, “protected” by a series of 36 different T-shirts—is not identified as a collaborative work, even though Faller took the 36 photographs and saw to their final presentation (after collaboration with Frampton about their order), and even though this particular series has at least as much in common with her solo work as with his.

“Recollections Recreations” also brings together more of Frampton’s xerographic work than any previous show. Three photocopy series are represented: “Reasonable Facsimiles,” 1971, a series of seven photocopies in which bits of text and image—simple lists, statements, letters—are manipulated so as to engage the viewer in complex conceptual play; “False Impressions,” 1979, 21 photocopies (seven are shown here) which playfully expose elements of the commercial manipulation of photographic reproductions and reproductions of reproductions; and two 12-image excerpts from the long series “By Any Other Name,” begun in 1979, for which Frampton photocopied commercial food-package labels (nearly all of them sent by friends, in another kind of collaborative process) that identify particular foods with company names and logos that have nothing to do with them. By reversing the relationship between the food name and the product identification, Frampton reveals the joke in his titles: Tuna Brand Chunk Light Bumblebees, Sake Brand Lotus Flowers, Peeled Tomato Brand Pine Cones, all 1979, and so on. The joke goes on a bit long, though the status of the series as an extensive collection of instances of a particular phenomenon is consistent with much of the work here, from Frampton’s early collections of artists to the more recent T-shirts.

But I’ve not mentioned what for me is the most arresting series of photographs in the show: “Adsvmvs Absvrnvs” 1982, a series of 14 color photographs and descriptive texts made in memory of Frampton’s father, who died in 1980. The series presents images of 14 specimens collected by Frampton over the years—a four-leaf clover, snake skins, a dead toad, dried red peppers, a decayed rat—and descriptive texts which themselves are reminiscent of a previous era: “The author has come to suppose that he conserved the things represented herewith against the day when they were to be photographed, understanding them to harmonize with photographs then unmade according to a principle within the economy of the intellect.” The beauty of these photographs, combined with the wit of the texts, especially when considered in the context of Frampton’s implicit feeling for his father (and, we can now presume, for his own dwindling mortality), make them a poignant metaphor for a remarkable career, or, perhaps more accurately, for this show. “Adsvmvs Absvmvs” is to the decaying specimens what “Recollections Recreations” is to Frampton’s work as a filmmaker, writer, and photographer: both provide interesting and amusing, sometimes lovely, but inevitably distortive remnants of a time gone by. Frampton must have been amused, and relieved, to know how capably his specimens would be exhibited.

Scott MacDonald