A Conversation with John Frame

John Frame in his studio, Wrightwood, California (2011). Photo courtesy of January Parkos Arnall for Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.

John Frame in his studio, Wrightwood, California (2011). Photo courtesy of January Parkos Arnall for Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.

Interview conducted at The Huntington: Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens at San Marino, California; and in the artist’s home studio at Wrightwood, California, June 23, July 6 and 19, 2011 by Jill Thayer, Ph.D. “In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art” was presented in an exhibition Sept. 4-21, 2013 at CGU East and Peggy Phelps Galleries. The series was curated by Dr. Thayer and sponsored by Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities.


In March 2011, The Huntington exhibition featuring the work of California sculptor John Frame includes the work of filmmaker Johnny Coffeen, who explores the artist’s process in this short film, scored by Frame. It is presented in the exhibition alongside Frame’s own film, which features his handmade characters. Frame’s house, as it appears in the film, is largely the work of his own hands.

John Frame has been making sculpture in Southern California since the early 1980s; his work has been exhibited extensively in the United States as well as in Europe, Japan, and Taiwan. He twice has been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and received the New Talent Award from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 1995, he was awarded the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Individual Artist Fellowship. He received an Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle in 2009.

In 1992, a major survey of the artist’s work was held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; In 2005, the Long Beach Museum of Art organized a mid-career retrospective exhibition, “Enigma Variations: The Sculpture of John Frame, 1980 to 2005.” John Frame’s work can be found in more than 300 public and private collections, including the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Orange County Museum of Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Palm Springs Desert Museum, the Renwick Gallery of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, and the University of Southern California.

Frame has been artist in residence, visiting artist, or guest lecturer at more than 50 museums, universities, and art-related institutions around the United States. He has also taught at the University of California at Los Angeles, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and at Claremont Graduate University. He lives and works in Wrightwood, California

JILL THAYER: [John shares his thoughts of being in the art program at Claremont Graduate School where he received his MFA in 1980.]

JOHN FRAME: Yes, it felt to me like a place where I could, in fact, go in whatever direction I wanted to go and Roland’s work really appealed to me, I have to say.

JT: Roland Reiss.

JF: Yes, Roland Reiss’ work really appealed to me. In looking at the big mix in Los Angeles, he was one of the very few people I saw as an artist, not as a teacher––as an artist whose work I responded to, I felt an attraction to, his attention to detail, the fact that it was figurative that I was not seeing anywhere, and then when I finally met him, I felt a very sympathetic response to him personally, so that made the final decision to go there.

JT: When you enrolled and started working on your methodology, did it just evolve?

JF: No, what happened for me was, in the first year, I was, in fact, influenced by the presence of a lot of other artists, both the visiting artists and my fellow students and I did feel a certain kind of directional momentum just because people were interested in the same ideas, talking about the same things, and so I tried to produce a work that had a conceptual component. They were drawings that, as I recall, had this loose calligraphic feeling that looked like a written language although you couldn’t actually read it. But, I didn’t feel very attached to them. It wasn’t working for me. The first year, I was a very reticent student . . . I was very quiet. I was very shy and because I was coming from a backward social background, I was really internalized and just set myself at the back. It wasn’t until the end of that first year that something happened. I just wasn’t prepared to participate in the art world, as I perceived it at the end of that year. But, I wasn’t ready to give up on it. Actually, an undergraduate teacher who was teaching at Scripps at the time, he was an advisor, somebody I was taking a class with.

I went to him and said, “I just don’t get this. I do not understand what is going on here.” And he said, “Why don’t you just take off and go back East for awhile, go to New York,” which I thought was really good advice. So, I did that. I took off and went to New York and spent a fair bit of time there, and while I was there, I really began to investigate art before Modernism. One of the things I’ve been told, both as an undergraduate and by implication as a graduate student, is that I really didn’t need to know anything before the 20th Century or before the beginning of Modernism. That was fine, I understood why they were saying that but I went to New York and I spent a lot of time at the Met and at the Frick, and at looking at paintings from the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th Centuries, something happened to me. And, what happened was that I was moved by art for the first time. I had not been moved by Contemporary Art but I was definitely moved by the work that I saw there. So, while I was there, I started to make a thumbnail checklist of what it was in certain paintings that affected me. The first was they were figurative. The second was they were beautifully crafted technically, people knew what they were doing with the materials. And the third was, I felt there was a kind of emotional authenticity about them. There was something real about the content.

And, so that, actually those thumbnail principles, I still hold today. I have formalized them more over this period of 30 years, but it was that initial exposure to work that had an impact on me that caused me to create a personal, very internal system of principles that would guide me in becoming an artist. And that was the beginning. When I cam back, I started immediately dealing with the figure, and I was doing these crude cartoon-like characters, they were half animal, half person in a drawn form, but they did have something for me. And, I was exploring those. Then, one night, I was at home in the mountains and I didn’t have my drawing materials with me, and I thought maybe can make one of these in three-dimension. So, I picked up a little piece of pine, a 1 x 2” pine stick and I cut it into three little blocks and made these three little figures. And those three figures were a revelation.

JT: It started.

JF: That was the moment.

JT: I know that art is such an intimate process and you spoke that early on, it was hard for you to come out of your shell. It sounded like once you were immersed in the artwork in New York, that context helped you.

JF: It definitely helped me.

JT: What year was that?

JF: That would have been 1980 . . . ’79 – ’80, I’m terrible with dates. It was right in the middle of my program. It fell at the halfway mark or maybe it was even a little bit earlier, I’m not sure, but I think it came at the end of my first complete year, which would have meant that I was traveling to New York in the winter because I entered in the middle of the program.

JT: Do you remember what was happening socio-politically? Did the environment affect you at all in your work or were you purely focused on your own process?

JF: I would say not terribly. I don’t respond to things politically or in terms of social politics very much. I am certainly aware of them, but I would say not really.

JT: What was going on at the time . . .  artists would reflect society or develop their own form of expression.

JF: Right. And I made a decision at that time, as you know, you couldn’t be in an academic environment and not have those questions raised and for me, I answered them as I am interested in them as a person but I am not interested in them as subject matter for my work. And so, I consider myself for example, a Feminist, but I would never take Feminism as subject mater for the work, nor would I do anything politically or socially, I think.

JT: Understandable. Can you describe the campus and your environment during this period while you were at Claremont?

JF: Well, we were in the basement––the sub-basement of Harvey Mudd [building] at the time. We were not in a separated building and my studio was in the sub-basement, which meant I was in this darkened basement area of a science building only illuminated by fluorescent tubes so it was a really sterile, kind of a terrible place. But we had these little cubicles down there and it was in those cubicles that I really began to explore what I discovered at home in this little piece of wood.

JT: What places and businesses did you frequent as a student. Do you remember where you used to go?

JF: Wolfe’s was there I think. I just ran in to someone here a couple of weeks ago who said, “Do you remember Bentley’s Market?” And I said, “No, I don’t really . . .” Well, now it’s Rhino Records. Bentley’s was the local market at that time.

JT: And that was in the Village? Did you go to the Village?

JF: Oh Yes, all the time. I went to Walter’s. It was kind of a hole in the wall.

JT: The restaurant, right. Can you describe a typical day as a student in the art program? Would you work all night?

JF: I worked mainly through the night. I’m not sure that I can say that. I remember not taking a lot of coursework that had regular scheduling. I remember meeting with different faculty members both graduate faculty and we had access to the undergraduate faculty from the other schools. I think I had some time with Paul Darrow . . . [and other faculty], but I spent quite a bit of time with them then. Maybe attending a class or two. I do remember the most important thing for me during the entire experience at Claremont––there were two things. The first was the discussion group format. I think my first year, I was in a discussion group or two, and as I said, I was very reticent, I was very shy so I just listened and absorbed what the other students were saying. After that first year when I came back, I became a much more active both speaker and participant in, and ended up being a leader for one of the discussion groups and that discussion group went on outside of the campus. In fact, it continued off and on for about 10 years beyond my experience at Claremont. Roland became a member of that discussion group.

JT: Who was in the discussion group?

JF: When we were on the campus it would have been Randy Lavender, and Barrie and John Mottishaw. And it fluctuated in terms of the membership. I there were . . . maybe seven or eight in the regular group and then it would expand. We would have meetings off campus at night where we would continue discussions of certain things.

JT: Give me a typical issue that you would discuss.

JF: There was a lot of concentration on the concept of Postmodernism. What that meant, if it was real, and if was going to have an impact on any of us. I was very interested in the concept because by this time, I decided that Modernism had become a dead end. It’s not something that I wanted to continue to pursue. I was beginning to search around for my avenue out of it. So, we were doing a lot of reading in that area. There were some critics paying attention to it, some were creating a kind of Postmodern model that I didn’t subscribe to. My concept of Postmodernism was that we would re-weave the fabric of art into a convincing new form, or set of forms. And, I think what most people meant when they were saying Postmodern was that they would allow the structure of art to be separated even farther. We are going to actually continue to disassemble art and we would look more carefully to individual components as we took it apart, and that was not what I wanted to be doing.

JT: Sounds like a wonderful discussion and you would meet once a week?

JF: Yes, once a week, I think we would meet formally and then we would have these meetings off campus. Some of the time we met at the home of Jerry Ackerman, who was teaching at Scripps at the time, but he was also very interested in hosting student . . . he was interested in having students around and so it became a bit of a place to hang out and again, have a discussion. He was an incredibly gifted art historian and very willing to share his insights and open. I don’t think he had an agenda in terms of steering people toward any conclusions, he was just there as a really knowledgeable resource for us. He was there some of the time, not all of the time. He wasn’t a regular participant––he was more of a host, and a very gracious host.

JT: Do you recall some of the literature or references, or reviews or anything you read that helped inform your discussions?

JF: I remember a book that had a lot of capital association at the time called, “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism,” which doesn’t sound at all like something I would want to read or that the group would want to read, but it was much more of an analysis of what was happening in the broader culture, and it was very provocative in terms of providing discussion information for us. I also remember reading Charles Jencks who was writing on architecture and the role of Postmodernism in architecture. There were certain critics, Donald Kuspit I read at the time.

JT: Any theorists or critics that you recall?

JF: I read broadly. I was very catholic in my willingness to read every point of view. I read people I liked . . . who I didn’t like. If it was current, if it was topical, I was prepared to read it. I felt that part of my job was to think for myself, and, I think the trend at that time had become one where critics were establishing systems of theory––theoretical systems in which artists had begun to fit themselves. So, instead of the artist developing their own response to their own life and time and putting it into the work, they were looking at cultural systems, theoretical systems and finding their way into those. It’s fine with me for me to do that, it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to find my own form and explore that. And, if critics wanted to write about it, they could take it . . . they could leave it . . . they could slam it . . . they could love it . . . whatever they wanted to do. But, I wasn’t going to try and accommodate them and I’ve never done that.

JT: Do you recall some of the visiting artists that came and spoke at CGS?

JF: One of the most memorable ones was Laurie Anderson. She was really fantastic. I could name a number of names but in terms of really influential presence, Laure Anderson would probably be number one. She was just incredibly vital . . . really natural, curious, odd, compacted, intelligent, fascinating. She was just a wonderful presence and there was something about her sense of performance that was really encouraging to me though what I was trying to do has nothing to do with what she was trying to do. But she was definitely an influential visitor.

JT: Maybe describe some of her work and how you related to it?

JF: She was doing performance art at the time. She was using her body as a sounding board for certain kinds of things. She was doing interesting things with music and the body . . . multi media presentations. It was kind of a new thing at the time. She was cutting records and singing. She was just doing this amazing array of unshackled . . . she just drew from whatever appealed to her and put it into herself and it came out in her form. And, it’s that, that most appealed to me. I didn’t want to become a performance artist because I saw her, but I loved the fact that everything was fair game to her. Even though, my work has become very focused with its stylistic devices and all of that, in some measure, I echoed her willingness to take whatever appeals and just put it in.

JT: Back in the ‘70s and early on, artists were expected to focus on one style and develop that style, and especially now, well, actually, the past couple of decades it’s been the case, that artists are crossing media and engaging in transdisciplinary pursuits. I see yours is essentially, a confluence of literature and visual art. Tell me, what made you start to engage in these different disciplines?

JF: We, have a basic operating principle that’s been with me pretty much from the beginning that is, in the computer world, we call it, “Garbage in, garbage out.” I really believe that what we choose to expose ourselves to, what we choose to bring in to our lives, in terms of reading, movies . . . interaction with individuals . . . the people we love, whether we choose to spend time in nature––all of those things have a direct impact on us as human beings. They shape us and as a result, they shape the work that we will do. I believe that there is an axiomatic relationship between what the artist becomes and what the work will become. And so, I’ve tried to bring in good quality things from the beginning. Our children, for example, were raised without television, without video games, they had none of that stuff, and in part, because I wanted to have good quality things around us . . . good music by my standards, good literature by my standards––good experiences in the world. And, that’s something that I’ve carried through from the beginning. It’s funny, I’ve been made fun of by my peers on this subject from early on and it’s fine. I genuinely love Shakespeare. I genuinely love the Russian authors. It’s not something that I’ve made up to have something to say.

JT: Of course.

John Frame in his studio, Wrightwood, California (c. 2011). Photo © January Parkos Arnall

for Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.

JF: It’s just, I love classical music . . . I’ve tried to share those interests with my friends and my family, and I think if there’s anything that shaped the work, it is my love of those things more than anything else.

JT: You’ve been making sculpture in Southern California since the early 1980s, and mentioned you were involved in various disciplines as photography and stop-motion. And, your work in this exhibition [“Three Fragments of Lost Tale, Sculpture and Story by John Frame,” March 12 – June 27, 2011, Boone Gallery at The Huntington] is set in theatrical stage design and extraordinary dioramas. Can you share how this project came into being? I know you have been working on it five or six years?

JF: Yes, a little bit over five years now. What happened in my case was that I had been working from the time at Claremont around 1980, I had been working in static form, same scale as the work you are seeing here, but nothing moved. It was all still traditional sculpture and, as I got into the late Nineties, that began to run out of gas for me. I was just . . . I was always a person who had way more ideas than I could accommodate in the work, but even with the numbers of ideas that I used to have, it was just gradually fading out. I sensed that a change of some kind was coming and that I was coming to a wall in my work. And in fact, I finally did hit that wall. I tried all kinds of things to get around it. I worked in a different medium for a while. I did a body of clay work that I spent about, I don’t know how many months, about a year working on. One day, I went into my studio and took the entire body and threw it, smashed it up and threw it away. And, I worked in some other forms, just trying to find my way out of what seemed to be a dead end.

At a certain point I realized, I was either going to have to begin to repeat myself and just keep doing somewhat . . . and a lot of artists do that. They get an audience––I’ve been fortunate in having an audience from the beginning–– they get an audience and the audience likes what they do and they just keep doing what they’re doing. I felt I could either do that, just begin to repeat myself, or I was going to have t find a new way out, or, I would have to stop. And, I couldn’t find a way out so I stopped. By the time I got to my mid-career retrospective, which was at the Long Beach Museum in 2005, was completely out of gas and that, which they were calling a mid-career retrospective, I was thinking of as a career ender. It was the end of my professional life. The exhibition was really well received and it was nicely written about, and attended and I took a lot of energy away from it, but when I got back to the studio, I was still flat. And after about a year in the studio of that kind of head banging, I gave up. I said, “That’s it, I’m finished,” and I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not going to continue as an artist and the moment that I truly let go of that and said, “I’m done,” within a matter of days, I was awakened in the middle of the night with this project.

JT: I was reviewing the narrative, and it talked about the dream. It just came to you?

JF: It wasn’t actually a dream . . . it came to me in the state between waking and dreaming. I went to bed at about one o’clock in the morning and around two o’clock in the morning I was awakened and somehow, I was awakened in such a way that I had one foot in my dream world and one foot in the waking world, and in that state the entire project came and I could see everything. As I said, I slept for about an hour, I was awakened. I lay there between about two o’clock in the morning until five thirty or six and it all just kept coming . . . one image after another, one idea after another. I was just holding them in my head. I was afraid to get up . . . to move to go to the bathroom, to get a cup, I just stayed in bed. At about five-thirty or six when my wife awakened, I asked her to go and get paper and pencils for me, which she did and she brought them in and I started writing. And it was absolutely like taking dictation. It was just as fast as I could write down something about plot. It came with a story, it came with character design . . . it came with set design, with action, with scenes. It came as a whole set. And, the first thing that came was . . . there is a story. It has a beginning, a lot of stuff in the middle and an end and I fleshed a lot of that out on that first day. It also came to me that all of this work would move, and the purpose of its being able to move was for filmmaking. So I knew at that moment that I would undertake stop-motion animation.

JT: Seeing and hearing of the process, and of course, Johnny Coffeen’s film on the production . . . and you scored it!

JF: I did and both films in there were scored by me.

JT: Tell me about that process.

JF: I have been kind of an improvisational pianist since I was in my late teens . . .

JT: John, were you influenced by any artists in your work or in your career?

JF: I have been influenced by so many people it’s hard to begin to talk about it . . . most of them not in the Modern Age. People like Bruegel.

JT: Bosch?

JF: Well, not so much Bosch, although I love Bosch’s work. I’d say Bruegel was a stronger influence . . . Goya. In the Modern Age, Joseph Cornell.

JT: His memory boxes.

JF: Early on, H. C. Westermann because he was one of the only sculptors dealing with recognized forms and really carefully building things. It’s almost impossible to identify. I have also been more powerfully influenced by literary people, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, Simone Weil, Shostakovich . . . pretty much the whole panoply of classical composers.

JT: Plus William Blake.

JF: William Blake, yes. Blake not so strongly as others, but Blake definitely because of the eccentricity of his relationship to his own contemporary world. I’ve identified with him because he was there, he was known. His work was reviled by many people . . . he was definitely the butt of a lot of criticism and a lot of jokes. He was considered a bit of a nut case and even though he made his livelihood as an engraver, and knew all the painters of his time, he was very much marginalized––and I feel the same way. It doesn’t bother me, I feel it’s a good location to occupy.

JT: Most artists seem to experience that at one time or another, you know?

JF: Yes.

JT: You’re definitely part of a larger family.

JF: There are definitely precedents for being on the border area and I’m happy to be out there. I don’t need a lot of attention . . . luckily, I’ve never needed money or fame and I’ve never had either, and that’s been perfectly acceptable. I’ve had the privilege, and it’s really an incredible privilege, of being able to work 30 years, pretty much without break supported in one form or another either through family members or, as a result of being able to find homes for the pieces so I’ve been luckier than many, many artists.

JT: Do you recall some of your professors and what effect they had on you and your work back at Claremont?

JF: Certainly, Roland Reiss would have been number one and without a doubt, the most influential person for me as a student. I had classes with Michael Brewster. I had classes with the visiting faculty, Tom Wudl was one of them. Actually, Chris Burden was one of them. I’m not very good at remembering people. Those are the names that immediately come to mind.

JT: Those that you mentioned, in what ways did they impact your direction or influence you?

JF: I think, just having access to working artists. And, I already felt that I was moving in a direction that was quite different from those people. I was open to hearing what they had to say. I felt challenged, which I think is a good thing for students. To be challenged by opposing points of view and engaged by those people. But it was really Roland who dominated my––it was the discussion groups and Roland who shaped my experience at Claremont. Roland, of course, was a brilliant teacher, an absolutely brilliant teacher. He also, I think n certain cases, he became kind of a mentor-friend even though that wasn’t in the classroom context. I remember times when I would just sit down with him for a few hours over a cup of coffee or a beer and it’s that kind of personal contact that really helped me to define what it was that I wanted to do. And, it requires a generosity of spirit that you don’t particularly find in the academic world. He was willing to sit down and talk with a student for three or four hours, that’s unusual.

JT: It helps having everything resonate in a real world context. You are so tunnel vision and focused in your studio work and in your methodology, just to stop and share, and exchange with someone, it just brings you back to the reality of that existence.

JF: It’s critical.

JT: What friends and fellow artists from the early days continued in their careers and did you stay in contact with any of them?

JF: I stayed in contact with Randall Lavender, Barrie and John Mottishaw. Certainly, the three of them . . . Michael Woodcock . . . and we stayed in pretty close contact. Barry and John and Randy were all in my discussion group, as was Roland that continued for eight or 10 years off and on after graduate school. I became studio-mates with Randy Lavender and we shared studio spaces three different buildings for a total of 12 or 14 or 15 years, I would have to go back and really look at the dates. Right out of graduate school we took on a 14,000 square foot building in downtown Los Angeles along with two other artists.

JT: What was the location?

JF: Eighth and Towne. I don’t remember the exact address. It was an old Firestone Tire and Rubber Building––a beautiful Italianate building from the Twenties. And we took, as I said, 14,000 square feet of that and created studios. I think we were actually, the first group of artists––there were plenty of artists living and working in their industrial spaces downtown before us, but I think, we were the first ones to be considered under the live-work ordinances––the artist-in-residence ordinances for the City of Los Angeles. In fact, I was in there building something one day, we were doing it illegally––everybody was bootlegging their studios at that time and I was up on a ladder and this guy came in and said, “Do you have a permit?” And I said, “Who are you?” And he said, “I’m so and so from the Department of Building and Safety, do you have a permit?” I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t.” He said, “Get off the ladder, put your hammer away and don’t touch anything until we cite you. And, so we were stopped in the middle of construction, we got provisional permits to continue building. We eventually had––I don’t know how many studios we built, eight or 10 studios in the space and we had occupancy, but it was always temporary. We were never finally signed off on it.

JT: Do you remember some of the folks that were in there?

JF: I don’t remember too many of them . . . Leo Rijn was one of them. Deborah Lawrence, who has continued to be a working artist. By the way, I didn’t mention, Greg and Jeff Colson, but Greg, I was in school with. You know, I haven’t spent a lot of time with them. I’ve admired his work and seen him from time to time over the years. I think, he’s one of the Claremont Graduates who has done really well.

JT: Both Greg and Jeff certainly have. I went to high school and college with both of them in Bakersfield.

JF: Good guys.

JT:  They have done tremendously in their careers as well.

JF: Real odd-balls [laughs]. I like both of them a lot.

JT: Can you tell me about what the LA art climate was like at that time, John? The people, the galleries, what do you remember?

JF: Well, I think it was a good time. There was a lot of activity. It was a good time for the galleries as I recall. People were selling a lot of work. It was a boom period if anything. It was definitely not a bust period. It was pretty heavily still conceptually driven and reductivist abstraction, but the field was open, opening up. And, what happened to me in the graduate school environment was, when I took on the figure, it was very . . . there were not many people doing the figure. As I said, as a result of that trip to New York when I came back, I immediately started doing the figure and I got very mixed responses, both from my peers and my fellow students, and the faculty. And Roland was the first one to see that first little piece or the first two or three pieces that I did and he said, “Wow! A blue mask.” I remember, that was the first thing that he said when he came into my studio. I had a little simple figure with a blue mask. And he supported it, but he also at the same time said, “You have to be aware that this isn’t what’s being done and you’re kind of going your own route, and I would encourage that, but you may not be able to sustain yourself doing it. And so, he was very realistic, I think, about what I was up against.

JT: Tell me about getting into your methodology. What made you decide that this was the direction you wanted to go? And, how did it evolve into the extraordinary exhibition at the Huntington?

JF: As I mentioned earlier, when I was in New York and I developed this system of artmaking, I came back to Claremont and really started to probe much more deeply in that system and I had two friends with whom I was very close, Randall Lavender and Richard Tobin. Richard Tobin was actually teaching at Scripps College at the time. So the three of us spent a lot of time sitting around coffee and cigarettes talking art. And it was really in that environment that I developed my belief system. What were the critical components for me to add to the way I made the work. And, there were these three basic elements.

One, that the work was technically adept . . . I really came to believe in the importance of technical skill. My feeling from the outset was that the kinds of things I wanted to explore were very subtle things, they were very deep human things, and they weren’t things that one could get through by simply splashing paint around or just––not that there’s not inherent value in that, but I felt that there was for me to get to the kinds of things I wanted to deal with I had to go much deeper and I needed very careful craft. Now, that was a really negative thing at the time. “Craft” was a very damning sort of a word. An artists who said, “I’m interested in the craft of artmaking,” was basically excluded from the dialogue––from the discussion in the art media, basically. That was fine with me. I wasn’t interested in that anyway.

The second thing was that I felt a responsibility to have the work be intellectually grounded. I came to art from a non-art background so I didn’t know very much about it aside from looking at a lot of work, which I told you about. I also realized that there was this written component to artmaking that was very critical to the work that I was seeing, even though I didn’t like what I was seeing. I felt an obligation to understand how it had gotten there theoretically so I did spend a lot of time reading art theory. In fact, I got to a point where I taught the history of criticism one semester at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Only one semester and I was a terrible teacher. But, I spent the time to really, I think, understand exactly why, in the middle of the 20th Century, art took the direction that it took. And, that was important. I think in order to change something you have to understand it first, and so I think I did understand and do understand why art went in the direction it chose but I didn’t want to go there. It was not for me. As much as I have respect for a lot of artists who are choosing completely different directions from my own, I wanted to find my own way. And, it was comprised of those two elements plus one more.

The third one was that the work be emotionally authentic, that it be, not about an idea, not about a theory, that it be about something that I felt deeply. The way that I tried to weave those things together was through intuition. I was trying constantly to get myself out of the intellect and into the intuition. From my point of view, intuition is actually a supra-intellectual function. It takes us beyond where our intellect can take us, and so, I sought it. I sought out the intuitive relationship to the work and believed in it. And again, I was definitely on the outside of the discussion of Contemporary Art because everyone was headed in the direction of theory. I wanted to go in a much more humanistic, more consolidating direction. Part of what I came to understand, as a result of reading about what happened during Modernism was, the metaphor that I had in my head is that, it’s like a child taking a clock apart to understand it. I think Modern Art really disassembled art and took it down into its separate components. On the one hand we ended up with the Conceptual arena, which is the intellect––the part of artmaking that really comes from the intellect. It separated itself into formalism, which became just beautiful painting, beautiful paint on a surface . . . beautiful abstraction, very formal. You get your take of art from the beauty of the surfaces and, expressive art, which is just getting your emotions down on a canvas. Neo-expressionism was in the forefront at the time. Along with conceptual work there was this underground Neo-expressionist movement. So, those three things were what, in my opinion, artists had broken art down into. I felt that it was my job to reunify those three things. I wanted to create a form that had all three things. I didn’t want to be a stupid artist, I wanted to still have an intellectual component. It’s very important to me. But, I also wanted to have the incorporation of technique and emotion.

JT: It sounds like Claremont was a supportive community and a supportive environment rather than competitive. Did you feel that?

JF: I did. I felt really privileged to be at Claremont. I thought that my experience there was superb. I came from a place of not knowing very much to, I felt when I walked out the door at the end of a two-year period, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. And, I was very confident that I was grounded intellectually, that I knew what I was talking about. I had these engagements with my fellow students, with visiting artists, with faculty, with visiting faculty and even though I had been challenged a lot in my thinking, I felt very resolved in it and I didn’t feel at all that I would be falling into some other form or I wouldn’t be able to survive. I was not afraid when I left Claremont, I just felt very confident that I would be able to make my way in the world, perhaps naively.

JT: How do you view the relationship of your work to contemporary culture?

JF: I am not interested in Pop Culture. That’s something that definitely separates me from many of the mainstream contemporary artists. I have divorced myself from it as completely as it’s humanly possible if you’re living in the 21st Century in the American civilization, you’re exposed . . . you’re bombarded with culture. But, number one, we live in a remote part of Southern California. My studio had been in downtown Los Angeles for more than 20 years, but when I began to sense that I had another level of work to move to, I moved from downtown, I closed that studio. I had a small studio up in the mountains that just . . . 

JT: What year was this?

JF: This was 2001 and that became very important, the degree of isolation that I had out there became very, very important. My studio downtown had been a center of gravity for a lot of the figurative artists in Los Angeles. We had a drawing group that met there every Thursday night for about 10 years. We would draw from the model, a very retro kind of a thing to do––draw from the nude model for about 3-1/2 hours then we would sit around and talk art and life for another two, three, or four hours after that. We did that for 10 years. It was an important gravitational point for us . . . for all of us. It happened to be in my studio. It could have been in anybody else’s. It didn’t have anything to do with my studio. But it gave, for people who really cared about the human form who really wanted to deal with the figure a place to come, not only to study the human figure, but to talk about it . . . to talk about technique, to talk about philosophy, to talk about theology, to talk about everything. And, it was a really important grounding location for many of these artists.

JT: Especially what was going on in West Coast art during that time and kicking into gear . . . well, it had a couple decades earlier, but specifically, during this time. Here you’re continuing that extension from what you gained at Claremont.

JF: Definitely.

JT: So you’re continuing the discourse.

JF: In fact, the model that I applied to the drawing group was very much the model that I had received at Claremont. It was really the discussion group in a slightly different form.

JT: What is the greatest contributing factor to your success?

JF: My wife, without a doubt, the most important.

JT: What advice would you offer aspiring artists?

JF: I think I already said it. Make yourself into a person who has something genuine to say. I think that’s really the most essential thing.

JT: And John Frame, what do you wish your legacy to be through your art?

JF: I want the work to be able to touch people the way I have been touched by other important work. It’s pretty simple. I want to leave something.

JT: And, anything you wish to add to this conversation?

JF: No. Thank you for taking the time to do it. I’m really honored to be included in the Oral History program. I think it’s an important program. I think it’s great that you’re doing it. I don’t have anything else to add to the interview, but I just think it’s really important to document some of these feelings among artists who are . . . some of whom are known, some of whom are less known, I think it’s really critical.


The audio recording and narrative transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with John Frame by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 June 23, July 6, and July 19, Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series. Photographs courtesy of John Frame are copyright protected and require expressed permission by the contributors for use. Other photographs and art images are copyright protected and may be used without permission, and cited as follows: [Image title] ©2011 [Artist or Photographer]; Oral history interview John Frame by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 June 23, July 6, and July 19, Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series. 

The above is a partial transcript from the original interview. The full transcript is included in Archives of American Art at The Smithsonian Institution. For more on the work of John Frame, visit: http://johnframesculpture.com; and “‘In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art,” see: Jill Thayer, Ph.D. – The Artist, Emergence, and Culture: http://www.jillthayer.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/in-their-own-words-oral-histories-of-cgu-art/.

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