Frank Stella’s impact on the world of postwar painting—namely the advent of minimalism—is well known; less considered are the colorful, expressionistic canvases which preceded his shift to the more famous Black Paintings. In conjunction with the Sackler Museum’s current exhibition Frank Stella 1958, we present two programs attuned to the fact that 1958 was also a year with filmic repercussions. Hollis Frampton (Stella’s classmate from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts), pursuing his career as a photographer, had moved to New York City, where he began The Secret Life of Frank Stella, a series of 52 portraits made between 1958 and 1962. Nearly ten years later, as the avant-garde film strain known as structural film was flourishing, Frampton made (nostalgia). In it Frampton demonstrates his embrace of cinema as he records the destruction of old pictures, including one of his portraits of Stella. If 1958 was a crucial year in Stella’s career, it was also a notable year in the experimental film movement, containing contemporary instanciations of the abstract/lyrical film, the graphic/structural film, and the found-footage film. These two programs explore the connections between two artists, two media, and one year that saw significant changes in painting and film.
Special thanks to Ken Eisenstein, Harry Cooper, and Rachel Moore
April 15 (Saturday) 7 pm
In Person: Rachel Moore, author of Hollis Frampton: (nostalgia) [MIT Press 2006]
Directed by Hollis Frampton
US 1971, b/w, 36 min.
For Frampton, a polymath fluent in several languages, the word nostalgia ought not be equated with the German word Sehnsucht, which means “longing,” but with its Greek meaning: “the wounds of returning.” With this connotation, (nostalgia)’s process of resurrecting and destroying Frampton’s old photographs is charged with the pain of “the lumps one takes (HF)” while remembering. As thirteen still images burn to ash on a hot plate, as the movie camera registers the metaphorical disappearance of Frampton’s years as a photographer in New York, a voiceover wryly reminisces about friends and failures. The narration plays with the relationship between sound and image, granting Frampton control over the viewer’s experience—a power vital to his interest in cinema as a system whose structure the viewer discovers in ordered time.
Directed by Caroline A. Jones
US 1984, color, 21 min.
In 1983, Frank Stella was invited by Harvard to give the Charles Norton Eliot lectures; the following winter, he was featured in an exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum entitled Frank Stella Selected Works. Frank Stella at the Fogg documents a gallery talk and interview with Stella during the show. Beginning with paintings he made in 1958 and continuing through his work from the early eighties, Stella comments on various pieces. Looking back at a painting from the sixties, he jokes that “it may never be that easy again.” Another piece prompts him to imagine how he would do things differently, if he were to return to it. Faced with his output from the last thirty years, Stella is alternately pleased, amused, and slightly regretful, as his audience, and the camera, elicit moments of introspection that give us insight into seminal paintings from his career.
Directed by Hollis Frampton
US 1969, color, silent, 22 min.
While working at a photo lab, Frampton found that the waste at both ends of the rolls of processed film—where chemicals worked on the emulsion through clips used to attach the film to the machine—produced images far too interesting to be discarded. For Palindrome, Frampton selected images which he described as “tending towards the biomorphic,” resembling abstract surrealist painting. However, the rigid palindromic structure that Frampton imposes on the images—a motorized sequence based on “twelve variations on each of forty congruent phrases”—deviates from the subjective aesthetic of the expressive, demonstrating Frampton’s interest in the “generative power” of films composed by rules and principles.
April 15 (Saturday) 9 pm
Directed by Bruce Conner
US 1958, b/w, 12 min.
The first film by the innovative West Coast sculptor Bruce Conner, A Movie is an editing tour-de-force, made entirely of scraps from B-movies, newsreels, novelty shorts, and film leader—all combined into a powerful portrait of our culture’s fascination with catastrophe and conquest. Conner’s films are brilliant manipulations whose tone of humor and ambivalence, critique and complicity, make them among the first, best, and brightest examples of the now-ubiquitous found footage film.
Directed by Stan Brakhage
US 1958, color, silent, 40 min
Akin to Stella in his role as a major figure whose explorations marked a shift in the history of postwar American art, Stan Brakhage forged a new mode of filmmaking. Anticipation of the Night is a formative work—a prime example of what P. Adams Sitney calls the lyrical film. Both the film and Brakhage’s contemporaneous essay, Metaphors on Vision, bear the marks of a Romantic idealism concerned with the visualization of intense and complex interior states. Anticipation of the Night is in the first person; the protagonist/camera attempts to participate in the untutored vision of a child, but night falls as the man is unable to regain that innocence. “There is seen the sleep of innocents in their animals dreams, becoming the amusement, their circular game, becoming the morning. The trees change color and lose their leaves for the morn, they become the complexity of branches in which the shadow man hangs himself (SB).”
Directed by Peter Kubelka
Austria 1958/1960, b/w, 6.5 min.
Although the duration of his output does not exceed sixty minutes of screen time, Peter Kubelka’s influence and impact are significant. In his third film, Arnulf Rainer, Kubelka continues his revival of the graphic traditions of the 1920s, reaching an extreme reductiveness (a montage of black and clear leader, white noise, and silence) to illustrate his theory that “cinema is not movement” but a projection of still images—and that it is not between shots but “between frames where cinema speaks.” Despite dissimilarities between Kubelka’s work and the main texts of structural film, Arnulf Rainer’s minimalist aesthetic gives credence to his claim that he was the precursor of that tradition.
Directed by Robert Huot
US 1966-1967, b/w, silent, 11 min.
By the late 1960s, New York artist Robert Huot’s conceptual and minimal paintings were exhibited alongside works by Frank Stella, Larry Poons, and Sol LeWitt. On his regular trips to see triple features on 42nd Street, Huot found himself “fixating on the light dancing in the scratches on the emulsion,” which he often found more interesting than the movies themselves. He began making films soon after becoming friends with Hollis Frampton, who felt Huot was “doing basic work that we film-makers ought to have done for ourselves decades ago, work that is both an addition and a reproach to film art." Scratch is “successful in reducing the number of filmic variables so completely that essential qualities and potentials of the materials of film can be felt. While [it] is nothing more than eleven minutes of dark leader with a continuous handmade scratch, the resulting imagery varies a good deal, depending on how deeply Huot dug into the emulsion (Scott MacDonald).”
Directed by Ernie Gehr
US 1970, color, silent, 23 min.
Ernie Gehr began making films in the late 1960s, using the medium in a way that expresses his belief that film “is not a vehicle for ideas or portrayals of emotion outside of its own existence as emoted idea. Film is a variable intensity of light, an internal balance of time, a movement within a given space.” Serene Velocity, which established his reputation as a major filmmaker, registers the empty corridor of a university building as Gehr systematically changes the focal length of the zoom lens. The result—a vibrating, pulsing, optical experience—creates a purely cinematic space and time whose illusion of geometric forms expanding out from the center of the screen resonates with Frank Stella’s 1958-1960 Black Paintings.