Hollis Frampton: Photographs

18 September – 13 December 2020

Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art

By Christian Kile

Wherever there are saints, there must also be heresiarchs like Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, and heretics.[1]

It was in 1958 that Hollis Frampton moved to New York and began to take photography seriously as a discipline. Previously Frampton had harboured poetic aspirations, and having struck up a relationship with Ezra Pound, came to the understanding that ‘I was not a poet.’[2] So for a time he turned, perhaps unexpectedly, to photography. Although primarily known as an avant-garde filmmaker, Frampton’s work also comprises a significant showing of still photos and this is the first retrospective of this work to be held in the UK.

Many of the works come across as exercises intended to complement filmmaking; indeed, Frampton’s early forays into film after 1962 often combined fragments of his earlier photographic projects.[3] The photos frequently form part of a series and are in some cases are accompanied by texts. Amongst Frampton’s concerns was the problem of modernist reduction and its application to photography: what would the photographic equivalent of Beckett or Barnett Newman look like? Other mediums such as easel painting and literature seemingly had more to offer before they were hollowed out, whereas with photography, ‘if we strip a photographic print, we run aground upon an emptied specification that is no longer a photograph. It is only, and exclusively, a piece of paper.’[4]

The shot chosen for the exhibition poster and first work in the show is Spaghetti -it is just that, a close up of pasta in tomato sauce: a photo made for James Rosenquist, echoing his painting F-111, only here the hydrogen bomb and consumerism are reduced down to no more than a sample of that monument to the American condition of the 1960s. On another wall, a series of fourteen colour photos of preserved specimens ranging from a cuttlefish and a toad to a single white clover comprise the series ADSVMVS ABSVMVS (We are here, we are not here), each image is accompanied by a text describing how Frampton came to obtain each specimen.

Elsewhere, there are two collaborations which Frampton made with Marion Fuller, his second wife: in the first room is a homage to Edweard Muybridge, whose motion based works are playfully referenced for Sixteen Studies from Vegetable Locomotion. Here the characteristic equine and athletic subjects are absent and in their place are tongue in cheek variations of vegetables in motion. Make of the splitting zucchini what you will. The work Rites of Passage comprises twenty black and white photos of a wedding cake, eighteen of which have toppings charting the progress of a typical middling life: amongst these confirmation, car, marriage, children, allegiance to the flag, the wreathed white picket fence and perhaps most comically, a rocking chair appearing before the 50thwedding anniversary. The first and last images bear no topping; I suppose to denote the absence before our conception and the one which awaits.

On the opposite wall is a short series The Secret Life of Frank Stella, a humorous nod to David Douglas Duncan’s The Private World of Picasso and other established photographers of the time. In a vitrine close by is a collection of photos Frampton took of his fellow artists and their studios; James Rosenquist, Robert Morris, Lee Bontecou and perhaps best known, images of Lee Lozano posing in her studio.

Frampton’s notes arranged in a nearby vitrine, include references to Borges and the film theorist André Bazin, next to whose name is written ‘unique ontological link with referent’. On another sheet, ‘Meditate on title “painting is dead”. Frampton’s art is for an audience who care about theory; it has been said of him that:

While his writings and interviews do much to illuminate obscured lines of development, his highly playful approach, which embraces wit and irony, as well as indirect allusion and intertextual intricacy, seems designed to address an impossibly learned reader.[5]

For a retrospective, the showing of works comes across as rather sparse, and what is on show did not entice me to contemplation for hours on end. However, the exhibition did well to express a tipping point: the time when the high avant-garde, that of Pound’s generation was on its way out. Pollock had died before Frampton made it to New York and the turn towards the textual and the ‘idea’ had begun to predominate. Duchamp’s provocations, Pop, Minimalism and French theory all began to define artistic practice seen as advanced, but in this it is all rather understated.

That the photographic aspect of Frampton’s work is still relatively little known may be taken as a compliment, for to an extent, he has maintained even after death what so many avant-garde artists have longed for: difficulty and resistance to mass culture. Rather than full acceptance and assimilation into the museum, into the stratified roll call of ‘important’ names, he continues to remain known predominantly to a specialist audience. Today, his still photos have been allotted no more than the basement floor of Goldsmith’s CCA galleries in New Cross.

[1] Hollis Frampton, ‘Impromptus on Edward Weston: Everything in Its Place’, On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, ed. by Bruce Jenkins (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 2009), p. 68.

[2] Scott MacDonald, ‘Interview with Hollis Frampton: ZORNS LEMMA,’ Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 4, 1 (1979), p. 34.

[3] Christopher Phillips, Word Pictures: Frampton and Photography, October, 32 (1985) 62-76, p. 65.

[4] Frampton, p. 70.

[5] Federico Windhausen, ‘Words into Film: Toward a Genealogical Understanding of Hollis Frampton’s Theory and Practice, October, 109 (2004) 76-95, p. 95.