Saturday, October 20, 2007


There's only one thing that all art has in common: a frame.

The frame may be made of metal or wood or it may be purely conceptual, but it is a perimeter that defines where the art ends and the rest of the world begins. No matter how outlandish or varied the art is, no matter whether it is an antique painting or the latest performance art, it is always framed by a boundary that separates the art from the rest of the natural world.

It's pretty easy to locate the borders of a work of art if it's on a piece of paper or canvas. However, some artists provoke their audience to think by playing tricks with the location of that border. The great Saul Steinberg jumped off the paper and created illusions, drawing on a bathtub:

or a box:

The clever artist Peter Callesen escapes the bonds of the page another way:

Even the art of Andy Goldsworthy, who makes temporary sculptures in nature using all natural materials, depends on his framing a space where he makes aesthetic choices and alters the natural order of things for the consideration of the viewer:

A few inches to the right or left of this sculpture there are rocks balanced on each other that are not art, but this one has became art because of the conceptual frame around it offered by Goldsworthy.
The iconoclast Jean Dubuffet dreams of a day when there is no longer a thing named "art" because the frame is gone:
What is true of art is true of many other things whose virtues fly away as soon as their names are spoken.... [I]t is quite probable that soon the painting, a rectangle hung with a nail on a wall, will become an outdated and ridiculous object-- a fruit fallen from the tree of culture and henceforth considered an antique....[T}he notion of art... will have ceased to be conceived of and perceived when the mind will have ceased to project art as a notion to be gazed upon, and art will be integrated in such a manner that thought, instead of facing it, will be inside it....

Until we live in Dubuffet's utopia, the role of art will continue to depend in part on where we draw the frame .


neil said...

Great post. That Peter Callesen piece made me say wow.

Anonymous said...

But David, isn't the point of a frame to allow us to see what the author has seen and we might have missed? When I look through my camera lense, the balance and aesthetic of what I am seeing changes with the framing. By including somethings, and excluding others, the reference points change, the emphasis changes, the perspective... Words are frames that help one express what is seen by the writer. I think "no frame" means life, and a frame helps me see what life might mean to someone else.

Anonymous said...

I love frames all by themselves too.

Anonymous said...

I could look at Goldsworthy all day long. Not an illustrator, but could you write about him?

Fran├žois said...

Great post, but is a "conceptual frame" really a frame? Sometimes the frame is not visible, or the limits quite undelimited, but there is always a material frame. I don't think that a "conceptual" frame does make sense.

You'll excuse my english, which is quite clumsy :-)

EP said...

Great post about the the use of frames in visual communication, whether it's a painting, a performance art, or a photograph! Well explained! Interesting Blog as well, worth bookmarking! :)

David Apatoff said...

Neil, I hope you followed the link to Callesen's web site. He has a lot of other similarly clever work.

Catherine, I agree with you exactly that "no frame" means life. In theory, the closer we get to life and the primacy of existence, the better, right? As Walt Whitman said, "Have you reckoned the landscape took substance and form that it might be painted in a picture?"

David Apatoff said...

Francois, when I referred to a "conceptual" frame, I meant nothing more than the thought process that separates an image or event from nature. It may be nothing more than a pause.

But art today is so broadly defined that the pause as we apply human consciousness to some discrete part of the world may be the only common thread.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Eduardo! I appreciate it.

Rachel said...

See, if you'd just read The Real Frank Zappa when we told you to, you'd know that he talks about the exact same thing. The book isn't on the internet so I can't get you the complete chapter he wrote on the subject, but I can leave you with a quote from it:

“The most important thing in art is the frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively - because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a "box" around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?” -- Frank Zappa

yer progeny

Anonymous said...

A frame also helps emphasize that the work of art is object that is owned.

Anonymous said...

Rachel: What is that shit on the wall sounds like a great place to be. I hate formality in art... it eats away at the rawness of expression.

(Formality in general is a nuisance)

Anonymous said...

The drawing in the bathtub was amazing! I couldn't believe the way the image played with my perception of it. I really enjoyed that posting!