Review by Bill Judson of Hollis Frampton's Circles of Confusion (approximately 1984)

Hollis Frampton, Circles of Confusion, Visual Studies Workshop Press, 199 pg.
Bill Judson, Curator of Film and Video, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute
Any consideration of Hollis Frampton's book of essays, Circles of Confusion, which was published in 1983, seems now impossible without contemplating as well Frampton's death a year later, at the age of 48. When Circles of Confusion first appeared, it provided the occassion to re-examine a dozen essays written during the twelve years from 1968 to 1980, mostly published in Artforum and October, from one of the most important artists of our time.
The volume also contains, appropriately, a foreward by Annette Michelson, who was Frampton's editor for his contributions to those periodicals, and Frampton included in the book, besides his twelve essays, an intriguing group of 31 photographs, mostly famous images from the history of photography. These are not illustrations of the essays. Rather, they are found objects arranged in a way that constitutes a thirteenth essay, interweaving amusing autobiographical references with a discourse on the nature of photography.
The pretexts of the twelve articles in Circles of Confusion vary widely, from discussions of major photographers such as Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Eadweard Muybridge to richly imaginative allegories which recall, simultaneously, Duchamp and Borges. Despite their variety, each essay reveals a particular facet of the unified core of the book, Frampton's perceptions on the nature of art and its making. The title of this volume, Circles of Confusion, refers to the material limits of all photographic lenses which, despite optical theory, produce in practice small disk-like forms ("circles of confusion"), flaws which define the limits of comprehensibility of an image resolved by a lens. The essays contained within this characteristically playful rubric are astonishing in their wit and surprising visions.
Frampton was a man of legendary intellect and extraordinary integrity and courage. Since his shocking death from cancer in March of 1984 several tributes have helped to make more clear the magnitude of Frampton as an artist. Most notable have been an excellent traveling exhibition and publication by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery curated by Bruce Jenkins and Susan Krane,^ the special edition of October magazine devoted to Frampton this past spring,2 and several retrospective film screenings. Despite the quality of these endeavors, there nevertheless exists what in the political vernacular would be called a "recognition problem."
The causes of this problem are clearly inscribed within the essays of Circles of Confusion, and they have to do in large part with Hollis's emphatic independence from cultural and artistic conformity. With a determination that now seems prescient and in an age — "modernist" — in which representation was increasingly banished from painting, Frampton insisted on the importance of illusion.3 And at a time during the '70s when artists fell increasingly silent about the meaning, theory, and context of their work, Frampton emphasized the importance of that articulation, and practiced it with an exceptional energy and elan. "Language and image are the substances of which we are made," he asserted in the preface to this book. We may eventually visualize "a universe in which image and word, each resolving the contradictions in the other, will constitute the system of consciousness."4 Undoubtedly the greatest factor in Frampton's "problem," however, is the fact that his imaging of consciousness was achieved primarily in the fields of film and photography, unlegitimized by the structure and commerce of much of the art establishment.
The element within these essays which now, after his passing, takes on a more assertive presence, is the frequent allusion to death. There is neither morbidity nor bravado involved; death is the apparatus in which we see reflected the energy and exhilaration of Frampton's work, in the films as well as the essays. Frampton's most ambitious film project was the largely completed Magellan cycle, which occupied the last 12 years of his life; it is comprised of hundreds of films ranging in length from a minute to nearly an hour, each to be shown as a part of a group on a designated day of the year. Frampton chose as his central metaphor for this encyclopedic, annual cycle the eponymous explorer who did not live to see the completion of his circumnavigation of the world.
The autobiographical implications of this metaphor were often raised in conversations and interviews with Frampton, and he always responded more or less obliquely.
In 1972, the year he began the Magellan cycle, Frampton wrote "A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative." In this essay, while contemplating Samuel Beckett's Malone, Frampton offers a definition of the first person singular:
"'I' is the English familiar name by which an unspeakably intricate network of colloidal circuits — or, as some reason, the garrulous temporary inhabitant of that nexus — addresses itself; [. . .] it is certainly alone; and in time it convinces itself, somewhat reluctantly, that it is waiting to die."5 Two years later Frampton pursues this thought: "I believe that we make art . . . and every deliberate human activity known to me seems to aspire, however obliquely, to the estate of art ... as a defense against the humiliating, insistent pathos of our one utter certainty: that we are going to die."6 Frampton's
response to these observations involved, in part, an assault on traditional
notions of linear, "historic" time. He opposed the notion of chronos "as a corrosive universal solvent into which all things were dumped at the moment of their creation, and then slowly sank, suffering gradual attrition.Frampton's alternative was constructed from the human experience, "the alternate and authentic temporality of ecstacy."8
Throughout these essays there are convergences between the notion of the ecstatic and the act of creation, glimpsed in the lens of potential extinction. These convergences take on many forms. In an article on the photographer Eadweard Muybridge Frampton describes a moment in Muybridge's life when during a brief paroxysm of obsessional intensity, Muybridge conceived and carried out the execution of his wife's lover, a crime of which he was acquitted. This episode, although rendered by Frampton in four unembellished sentences, is made to inform our entire perception of Muybridge — the man, and his work.^
In contrast to this biographical fragment, the conjunction of these elements occurs in more purely metaphoric form in the essay "A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative." Frampton there imagines a galaxy of polyhedra; each polyhedron embodies a particular mythic structure (e.g. Father and Son), each facet representing a different point of view of the configuration (e.g.
Odysseus, Hamlet, Oedipus). At the center of this cosmos is the polyhedron of the Story-Teller, the configuration of creative potentiality, some facets of which are dusty or vague, but all reflect ourselves, "behind our eyes, distantly, our polyhedral thoughts, glinting, wheeling like galaxies." And elsewhere in the cosmos, "A hole torn in the very fabric of space, whence no energy escapes, is rumored to mark the place where AGNOTON, the black Polyhedron of the Unknowable, vanished.
1. Bruce Jenkins and Susan Krane, Hollis Frampton: Recollections, Recreations
(Buffalo: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1984).
2. October 32 (Spring 1985).
3. See in particular "Discussions on the Photographic Agony," in Hollis Frampton, Circles of Confusion (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop Press,
1983), 177-196.
4. "Preface," ibid., 9-10.
5. "A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative," ibid., 64.
6. "Incisions in History/Segments of Eternity," ibid., 89. (Ellipses Frampton's)
7. "Eadweard Muybridge: Fragments of a Tesseract," ibid., 74.
8. "Incisions in History/Segments of Eternity," ibid., 96.
9. "Eadweard Muybridge: Fragments of a Tesseract," ibid., 73.
10. "A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative," ibid., 68.
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