Art: What’s in a frame?

My art teacher for the latter part of high school, Leo Nitzsche, was not generally given to making sweeping, dogmatic pronouncements on art theory. On the contrary, my enduring memory of his classes is one of creative anarchy. He encouraged us to explore the limits of what art might be — and what might be art — on our own. However, whether we turned in a still life of a bowl of fruit or a piece of circuit board glued to a sheet of cardboard, the one thing he insisted on was that it must have a frame. 

No doubt Mr Nitzsche was not the first person to voice this idea. To the extent that a gallery or museum may be understood as a kind of frame for the artworks inside it, Marcel Duchamp may be understood to have been testing its boundaries with his urinal, and in light of the continued deference paid to that object he would seem to have proved that being framed is sufficient to confer on any object the lofty status of an artwork. 

But although the urinal depends on the frame to retain this status, there are other objects to which the status clings more tenaciously, even without a frame — objects that are in the broadest possible sense more beautiful than a urinal. There are also forms of public art such as murals that cannot be said to be inside a frame unless an entire neighbourhood or city is regarded as the frame, at which point the idea of a frame begins to disintegrate. Thus, it would seem that, on the other hand, a frame is not a strictly necessary condition. 

I never pressed Mr Nitzsche for an explanation or elaboration of the idea that an artwork needs a frame, but I did notice how almost anything could be granted a certain visual significance simply by putting blank space between it and nearby objects, and perhaps this is all he was trying to get across. 

Had I argued with him, perhaps he would have explained that artworks should be distinguished from their surroundings in a particular way — that the eye should be made to cross a threshold from the world of objects into the world of aesthetics. Perhaps his insistence on a frame was not the tip of the iceberg of a unified theory of aesthetics, but rather something less grand and altogether more useful to anyone engaged in the production of objects to be looked at (call them what you will) — a heuristic, simple and true as far as it goes. 

The usefulness of frames was confirmed for me in the sculpture garden at the Norval Foundation, a newish art museum in Cape Town that I recently visited. On a wooden boardwalk leading through a patch of reeds, a plaque announced the presence of James Webb’s As Yet Untitled sound installation. The plaque reported that the work was synchronised in some way with various astronomical phenomena. There was also a QR code that linked to a website with various data on the rising and setting of astronomical objects including the sun, moon and galaxies. 

Webb’s intent may have been to draw attention to the continuity of all things, to the underlying materiality of art, to the star stuff at the base of it all. A humbling, perhaps, of human creativity in the cosmos. And yet, I did not come away with a deep sense of … anything, truthfully, as I strained to hear past the roar of traffic from the M42 and the buzz of a weed-eater from the gated complex abutting the garden on the opposite side.

This experience suggested another way of describing the usefulness of a frame: that it is there to protect the viewer’s attention and keep guiding it back to the work when it wanders. To do this, a frame should be relatively featureless, and whatever features it does have should not draw attention to themselves, but redirect it back to the work instead. Such a frame has a high degree of aesthetic fungibility: having no stand-out features of its own and not being part of the artwork itself, it is, to a large extent, interchangeable. 

An exhibition of Irma Stern’s Zanzibar paintings, also at the Norval Foundation, however recently impressed on me the limitations of this description of a frame as an interchangeable, external boundary or barrier. In fact, it was this exhibition that reminded me about Mr Nitzsche’s remark about frames, firstly because it drew explicit attention to the frames on display and secondly because the frames themselves embody a contrasting sense of framing as contextualisation.

Stern’s paintings were framed by craftsmen using discarded fragments of traditional Zanzibari wooden door frames. The sturdy, intricately carved casings, lintels and decorative panels are, in several ways, exemplary boundary objects. 

Already, as parts of a door, they would have formed a boundary between public and private space; as decorated structures they blurred the convenient distinction between art objects and ordinary objects; and many of the design motifs hover at the boundary between iconic representation, conventional representation and geometric form — one is referred to in the exhibition text as “a paisley like form that seems to represent either pineapples or fish”. 

Like ordinary frames, they separate the paintings visually from the gallery walls and other nearby paintings, but they are also an integral, nonfungible part of the artworks, and enrich them; not only by defining a special aesthetic space inside which one can look at a painting with a certain protected cognitive posture, but also by anchoring the painting in time, space and history, so that as the eye crosses the threshold from the world of objects into the world of aesthetics it is, at the same time, alerted to the painting’s temporal, material and human matrices.

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Simon Abbott
Simon Abbott is a writer living in Cape Town

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