Hollis Frampton is one of the most underrated of the great ‘60s conceptual artists, not least because he mostly worked in photography and straight film. This now seems paradoxical, but both media were at the time ways of slipping the noose of the art market, and he didn’t even bother to edition or sign most of his photographs, Leo Lencsés, the curator of this show, told me. Fluent in half a dozen languages, enviably educated, close friends with Carl André and Frank Stella, Frampton seemed to have a genuine aversion to success.
Frampton is a kind of art school legend for his structuralist films, including his 1969 study of a lemon as if it were an undiscovered moon, and his beautiful nostalgia, 1971, a short study of photography’s baked-in preoccupation with loss. All his works carry a kind of dry, self-deprecating humour, and a sort of skeptical attitude of «well, we’ll see in the end». Except what happens if we don’t?
Towards the end of his life, to reflect upon the death of his father, but only two years before his own death from cancer, he made a series of photographic works, ADSVMVS ABSVMVS, 1982. The title is Latin for «We are here. We are absent.» (I think I mentioned that he was overeducated). It consists of fourteen images of once living beings (frogs, roses, fish, a four-leaf clover), squashed flat, partly dessicated and then photographed in stunning black and white to complete their petrification. In the short texts attached to each photograph, Frampton plays with language. Of the clover, Frampton wrote «Good fortune emanates from ownership of the consequence of a chromosomal ambiguity in this leguminous herb.» But what comes through the text is not his humour, so much as a subtle aftertaste of bitter dismay.
Frampton was of a generation raised to believe that death would be a historical event. They were collectively prepared for a nuclear apocalypse. Their deaths were supposed to coincide with the end of the world, or at the very least, to be connected to meaningful sacrifice. Death was the portal where the egocentrism, the consumerism, the banal individuality of the sixties would be sublated into the ultimate other.
But no, what Frampton Senior got, and what Frampton Junior would get shortly thereafter, was a terminal illness. Lung cancer. You go to the doctor, and he hands you your prognosis: your very own, personal, expiration date. And although it means the world to you, it means nothing to the world. Your death will be as peculiar, as individual, and as egotistical as your life. I think that’s what Frampton was struggling with, with these images. It’s the same problem John Coplans wrestled with via photography.
Can you reconcile yourself to this? The other series in the show, Rites of Passage, 1983/1984, seemed to try. Photos of small tokens symbolising birth, marriage, reproduction and death, each one posed on the same wedding cake. The ornamental stepped cake is a ridiculous podium, a sacrificial altar, but also, for all that, a real signifier of celebration. Your fate is ridiculous, perhaps. And you can’t share it. But everyone has the same problem. That much we can share.
Hollis Frampton, Galerie Francesca Pia, March 27 – June 5, 2021
Images: Hollis Frampton, ADSVMVS ABSVMVS (XIII. BROWN RAT), 1982; Hollis Frampton, ADSVMVS ABSVMVS (I. WHITE CLOVER), 1982; Installation view, Hollis Frampton, Galerie Francesca Pia, Zurich, 2021. Photo: Annik Wetter; Marion Faller and Hollis Frampton, Rites of Passage (Stork/Birth), 1983/84.
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