Hollis Frampton: Zorns Lemma (1970)

On Thursday night, it was a pleasure to follow the final residency session in the Study and the last of our March Workshops with a chance to view Hollis Frampton‘s 1970 film Zorns Lemma, projected on 16mm on a big screen in The Space.  Frampton is widely regarded as one of the key figures in American underground film, and his work often draws its inspiration from mathematical and scientific systems, sometimes influenced by the minimalist works of artists like Carl Andre (who Frampton knew well, the two having studied together in Massachusetts and shared an apartment in New York during the 1960s). Yet these potentially ‘dry’ ideas are realised in ways that draw heavily on poetic techniques: Frampton corresponded with Ezra Pound in the 1950s and is known to have held a long fascination with the generation of Modernist poets born during the 1880s. He began his career with some ambitions in the direction of poetry, though he later claimed that Pound’s example had persuaded him that his talents lay elsewhere.

With its beginnings in photography (early work included a series of portraits of artist friends like James Rosenquist, Larry Poons, Frank Stella and others) he began to move into film through the early 1960s, though of the half-dozen works he made prior to Information (1966) all are now, it seems, lost (though some of the ghosts of these works inform  nostalgia, a film completed in 1971). From 1966 onwards, Frampton proved fairly prolific and between then and 1970 – the year he made what is widely regarded as his masterpiece, Zorns Lemma – his filmography contains no fewer than 14 titles, mainly shorts whose shared fascination with scientific and systematic ordering principles for the visual images they contain link clearly to the concerns that had their most striking realisation in Zorns Lemma (the curious title is derived from a mathematical formula by Max Zorn, as described here in terms of its relationship to set theory and ideas of choice and ordering).

The precise mathematical operations of the film might require someone with more expert knowledge of the theorem than I can bring to bear to untangle its particulars, but what is clear is that Zorn’s Lemma is divided into three parts, with short first and final sections framing a long central sequence in which a 24 letter alphabet (the letters I/J and U/V are merged for reasons that aren’t entirely self-evident) is subject to an elaborate series of substitions, transforming the initial ABC structure of one-second shots of found words in the urban fabric (A, Baby, Cabinet, Daily, Each, Fabric, Gain, Hack in the first sequence, then Abbey, Back, Cable, Dairy, Eagle, Face, Gallery, Hair in the second, each sequence different through all the permutations) with quasi-random moving images, until the whole alphabet is abstracted into 24 arbitrary scenes: a girl on a swing, fire, the sea, workmen digging, hands peeling a tangerine, multiple reflections of someone bouncing a ball, and so on. 

This alphabetical sequence – by far the sixty minute film’s longest section – is based on a series of texts made by Carl Andre during the 1960s and declares a strong affinity with minimalism in art. Yet the short opening and closing sections suggest an extension of that lineage into a wider history of Puritanism in America, where the opening recital (over a blank screen) of The Bay State Primer  introduces a work whose Biblical references and bleak moral homilies – “In Adam’s fall, we sinned, all…a dog will bite a thief at night…the idle fool is whipped at school…as runs the glass, man’s life doth pass…” – were aimed at giving children moral instruction alongside their language-learning in the 19th century. The closing section, by contrast, has two female voices reciting alternate words of the Theory of Light in time with a metronome, while on screen a man and a woman enter the frame of a snowy field, and walk slowly across it until they disappear inside the dark forest on its horizon: a single long shot.

With these framing sections in place, the minimalist ordering and play of the central alphabetical sequence takes on a relationship with the film’s apparent Puritan ancestry, suggesting that minimalism and conceptualism in art may be part of a similar lineage in American culture to their religious forebear: it isn’t too great a leap, after all, to consider the minimalist sensibilities of Carl Andre or Donald Judd as late developments from the root of Shaker furniture, or see the emphasis on language in much conceptual art as part of the same current as that insisting on the primacy of the Word in Scripture in preference to the ritual trappings and visual languages of the Catholic and higher Anglican churches. In essence, then, Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (a very rough VHS transfer is available to view here) seems to be a reflection on the links between the mathematical and poetic, the visual and literary, and the spiritual and aesthetic.

The hypnotic quality of viewing it, the often incantatory quality of its voices, and the rich visual textures deployed within its ascetic structure produce a work that becomes analagous to the operations of the poetry Frampton initially wanted to write: the mathematical ordering principles of Zorns Lemma are not dissimilar to the patterns, rhyme schemes and other architectural devices of poetry, or the geometries of composition in painting. There’s a strong metrical arrangement here, giving structure to otherwise chaotic material and experience, and just as the sonnet’s restrictions create the vessel for some of the most personal and immediate writings in literature, so the apparent rigours of Zorns Lemma generate something that finally feels very personal. Keeping Frampton’s own early death in 1984 in mind, the base level narrative of birth and death implied by the shift from the childhood ABC of The Bay State Primer to that closing image of an empty snow-field, makes Zorns Lemma more than a little poignant, too.

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  1. […] Some related links: Zorn’s Lemma (1970) A blog post on the film […]

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