ESSAYS Mousse 32
Hollis Frampton: Excerpts from the Last Interview
by Bruce Jenkins
In early March 1984, Susan Krane, then a curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and I visited Hollis Frampton at the home he shared with Marion Faller in Buffalo, New York. Our purpose was to gather biographical information for a chronology of Frampton’s life that was to appear as part of the back matter in an exhibition catalogue for his first monographic museum show—“Hollis Frampton: Recollections and Recreations,” which opened posthumously in September 1984 at the Albright-Knox. The interview was recorded on low-fi audio-cassette tapes that have languished for the past twenty-eight years among my files.
In revisiting the tapes recently, I found that Frampton—while in the final stages of an illness that would soon claim his life—was nonetheless undiminished in spirit, in insight, or in humor. That afternoon he guided us on an episodic journey from small towns in Ohio to the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan with stops in Cleveland, Andover, and Chicago along the way. This early period, which presaged his artistic coming of age, witnessed this son of a factory worker in flight from the provincialism of his Midwest home and embark on a journey that brought him into close contact with other young artists-to-be and, through a process of elimination, to the discovery of the arena for his own artistic métier.
The transcripts cannot capture Frampton’s rich basso voice, his comedian’s capacity to mimic accents, or the delight he took in capturing the most intimate details of the ambience of worlds now long vanished. In the humble guise of fact-gatherers, Susan Krane and I had become spectators to the final performance of a one-man show that had been enacted in countless classrooms, cinémathèques, artist lofts, and bars and that had captivated a generation of students, film audiences, fellow artists and friends.
[CHILDHOOD IN OHIO]
BRUCE JENKINS: We know that you were born at 2:05 AM on March 11, 1936, but beyond that it becomes sketchy.
HOLLIS FRAMPTON: I was the first Caesarian section in my county, I guess. How do you like them apples? Nevertheless, the medical milestone was passed by. Just six days short of twenty-two years later, making a hard left onto Tenth Avenue coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel at about five in the morning, I found myself taking up residence in Manhattan, where so many lives have begun. Well, I had had some experiences before that, but that, I suppose, was when I officially hit the trail.
SUSAN KRANE: Okay, let’s get some of those autobiographical details in between, since there’s all that erroneous stuff published.
HF: Sure, you bet. My father was not, by the way, a steelworker from Akron. He was a chemical worker, and at the time he was a chemical worker and I was at home, the site was not Akron, it was Cleveland, a place that is very much worse and always has been.
SK: Did you grow up in Cleveland?
HF: Let’s see: zero to nine-and-a-half, Wooster, Ohio, interspersed with various local villages. Nine-and-a-half to fourteen, Cleveland. Fourteen to eighteen, Andover, Massachusetts. No, I did not go to Exeter or Choate. I did go to Phillips Academy, which is the official name of the prep school called Andover. Eighteen to twenty-one, I attended what is now Case Western; at that time it was Western Reserve University and Case Institute of Technology, which certain of my friends from elementary school attended. I used to bump into them on the sidewalk, and we both looked embarrassed. There were various wanderings during the college years. In fact, I think I wandered more than I stayed put.
BJ: Was it in Cleveland where you got to go to an art school on a small scholarship?
HF: That was when I was a child. Yes, it was. When I was in grammar school, I had a scholarship to go to Saturday classes at the Cleveland Art Institute. It was a wonderful adventure. The place was extremely academic, and I dare say it still is. It’s probably run by local—at that time they were very very provincial—people. Aside from a kind of important skill orientation it provided for me, mostly it was useless because I couldn’t do any of the stuff. I had no dexterity of that kind at all.
SK: But they gave a scholarship.
HF: Yeah, I did okay for a ten-year-old, I guess, but it probably couldn’t advance beyond that. And I also found that I didn’t like to do any of those things. Which didn’t mean that I was in awe of the kind of rendering and so forth. I liked the idea of illusion, although it seemed to be put to ghastly purposes most of the time. But I did take six semesters of life drawing. And I got okay at it, I guess, or enough at least to divert the instructor’s attention from my real interest. I was ten years old; I had never seen an adult naked woman before. And the first day I walked into class, as a matter of fact, there was just a splendid specimen—a Slavic redhead, a good six feet tall with real Slavic red hair, tubular limbs, and an anchor tattooed on her left biceps.
SK: No wonder you remember this in great detail.
BJ: A virtual mnemonic device.
HF: Well, needless to say, I can never see an anchor tattoo without its surrounded self—with the biceps and the arm, and gradually the picture fills in from there. That was a wonderful moment and apparently was for just about everyone else in the class, too. How could you improve on it or do anything about it? It was just complete in itself.
HF: I was class of ’54. I think they made a kind of mistake with us. The class of ’53. Actually there is a filmmaker named Les Blank in the class of ’53. Although he certainly was not the Latin Quarter type then.
BJ: Were you friends with him?
HF: No, as a matter of fact I wasn’t. I kind of remember him, and that was all at that time. Then there was Carl Andre. Carl Andre and I met the first day I arrived there. In fact, although we were in different classes, they had decided to randomly mix the scholarship boys. So Carl became my roommate. I didn’t know what to make of him. He was monstrously overweight at the time. He didn’t decide until later that he wanted to be slim and beautiful. So he was probably his present height—5’6” or something like that—and weighed well over two hundred pounds and had a southeastern Massachusetts twang, which I had not heard before.
SK: Could you understand it?
HF: I could, but I thought he was some kind of Southerner. Nevertheless, I remember that evening very well. We had both read a physicist named Arthur Eddington during the summer and had a long discussion—us two fifteen-year-olds—about Eddington’s representation of time. That is thirty-two years ago, I believe. I don’t know if there was anybody else in his class. My class had Frederic Rzewski in it, it had David Behrman in it—both of them composers, it had me, it had Frank Stella, who was a rather quiet kid who first came to my attention because he became the almost daily target of the wrath of a second year algebra teacher named Cornelius Gordon Schuyler Banta III, alias Bugs Banta, who was definitely a good teacher and definitely not a patient one. So Frank got his share of chalk thrown at him and so forth. Nevertheless we fell into conversation for the first time, I guess, in English class or something. Then Frank showed up in a studio art course that was open I think to sophomores or maybe juniors. I found out later that Frank had actually spent his Saturday mornings since he was a child copying Degas in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with pastels. It was interesting, because I had spent my Saturday mornings at the Cleveland Museum of Art drawing pictures of Chinese sculpture and the big Rodin Thinker outside before it was dynamited. But he began to paint, of course, while he was there. And I edited the school literary magazine during my senior year and was an associate editor during my junior year. And I believe I was responsible for the first publication of Frank’s paintings, as a matter of fact. The only ones I can remember were, let’s say, loose expressionist works, but they were kind of figurative. Put it that way. The only title I can remember is When Snakes Kiss They Hiss.
SK: Were you painting at that time?
HF: Well, yes, I was a bad painter for all the reasons that bad painters are bad painters now… Anyhow, I went on painting until I was in my early twenties, but it was obvious that the materials weren’t for me. I’ve said it plenty of times. Most of a practice is idiot work, and if there isn’t something in idiot work that appeals to you, you’d better get out right away. I have enjoyed, I have truly enjoyed cutting little pieces of celluloid up and sticking them together again in different forms and so forth. I just love the stuff. It’s wonderful. It makes this rustling sound—terrific! There is no way to make me like paint as a physical material. I am indifferent to it or find it nauseous. I find the typical activities of at least old-fashion sculpture kind of dumb or dangerous. I kind of like welding in fact, but you can burn yourself doing that. I never was attached enough to the idea of putting things together that I could forget that there was a certain amount of physical danger.
BJ: But you did in fact make some wooden sculptures.
HF: Oh yeah sure. I had to find out that I felt that way. It wasn’t something that I was able to observe particularly. When I went to New York, I fell among painters and sculptors, and they were of my generation.
SK: Had you shot pictures before then?
HF: Yeah, you bet I had. I was the victim of the “doting uncle syndrome.” You come downstairs on the Christmas morning of your ninth year, and you find this big yellow box. It has the little camera in it and a couple of rolls of film and MQ developer and hypo in a little tank and so forth. And I really liked it a lot, I must say. In fact, I sort of checked in and out of it. It was all black and white, of course. As I recall, while I was at Andover there were some efforts with distinctly arty overtones. Andover had a photography club. Most of the kids at Andover were rich; I was not rich. Most of them had—for teenagers at least—quite fancy cameras; I didn’t. I had a plastic camera. I found the people in the photography club intimidating.
SK: When you started studying Sanskrit and Chinese, was that a function of being interested in literature or through the Oriental art in Cleveland?
HF: No, I did all that stuff because… at first I thought it was to read the texts for myself in the original and to a considerable extent, I succeeded or I succeeded to a degree in all the languages I tried to do that with except Russian. If I go into a deep enough trance I can still remember “The Horse Sacrifice” from the Second Upanishad in Vedic and so forth. At least its sonority is a comfort to me. And I can read classical, although certainly not modern, Chinese with the aid of a dictionary. To learn how to use a Chinese dictionary is, in itself, a study. The truth of the matter is that I was interested in language and in languages kind of for their own sake, and in linguistics, and I still am. And I still think that if nothing else a knowledge of a few natural languages is a valuable corrective for certain wild hypotheses in linguistics…And what else was I going to do?
SK BJ [Laughter]
HF: No, it’s hardly a rhetorical question in a way. I suppose I could have done a lot of things, but nothing much appealed. To do Chinese in the summer was to go to Chicago in the summer, you see.
BJ: At the University of Chicago
SK: Were you there for more than one summer?
HF: I was there for three years: ’55, ’56, ’57, I think.
[NEW YORK CITY]
BJ: Had you established residence yet in New York?
HF: Well, yes, good God [laughs]… What made me laugh was when you asked me if I had established a residence. I went to stay with Andre. Well, Andre was a production editor with Prentice Hall at that time. And he supplemented his income by “taking in laundry” in the form of making indexes to technical books, an activity he swore he found enjoyable. Anyway, he did it fast, and he got paid a lot for it. Well, I slept on his floor for a while. He lived up by Columbia University, what he called the “green slum,” at 600 West 113th Street—113th and Broadway. I lost my car pretty quickly. So I poked around looking for a job and had a reference at a picture-framing store on Eighth Street called the Renaissance Print Shop, which I think may still be in business. It was largely entrepreneurial, although I certainly did learn how to frame a picture there. That lasted me till Christmas, and by that time I had spent a hundred dollars on key money that had got me a 155-square-foot apartment at 219 Mulberry Street just above Spring—a real trap, it really was a trap. It was just a mess, but the rent was $19.84 a month. Fourth-floor walk-up. It even had bedbugs at one point; it certainly had roaches.
Anyhow, that lasted about nine months during which Carl came to sleep on my floor.
© Bruce Jenkins
Originally published on Mousse 32 (February–March 2012)