Frederick Abrams

The Underground Cathedral


Q. What is the concept at the base of this work and why did you choose this traditional craft?

A.The idea was to explore it as a light art form, which is not only abstract but with broad possibilities for painterly expression, symbolism, representational work and conceptual applications. When I was first visiting Paris I had the idea of one day showing this work inside of the Centre Pompidou.

The Large Brain in Centre Pompidou

At the time this building was only two years old. I could look from it to Notre Dame where the famous stained glass “Rose Windows” exist. Numerous such associations came to mind, which inspired me to embark upon my return to L.A. on making an ambitious work about the history of our civilization. You could look through the actual map, the glass itself, and through it you would see the cityscape of Paris. The way that I chose the glass was that the area that represents the city of Paris is white. It’s opaque like milk, you cannot see through it, but the tubular train lines which bisect it are transparent. The surrounding areas of the “banlieu,” the suburbs of Paris, is light transparent beige color and the areas where the parks are in east and west is a light green color which is also transparent. However, this glass also has texture to it. It is hand made glass, in fact, it’s European made, which was exported to the United States, sold to craftsmen and artists working in this medium, and it has a very delicate texture which distorts the background to a degree that you can still recognize what you are looking at but it appears to be something akin to an impressionist painting.

Les routes de La Grande Odalisque
(The Large Brain)

Also, in the process of doing this I had become very fascinated by Marcel Duchamp’s “Large Glass,” and by the way I haven’t mentioned the title of this work. It is, “Les routes de La Grande Odalisque,” or, “The Large Brain.” Duchamp’s was, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” or “The Large Glass.”

“La Grande Odalisque” is a famous painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, which is an image of an odalisque, a harem girl. Of course, this was a very commonly used subject of French painting in the 19th century. He was the head of the French Academy and he had made this painting which was rather shocking because he had elongated her vertebrae. You are seeing the back side of this naked woman, so he had done something to distort the actual anatomy.

Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque Ticketed

So this was one of the first departures from realism. Anyway, the title derives from famous works by two French modern artists, one who was a painter and director of the Academy, the other a painter and later conceptualist who was a pariah. The title also has to do with the relationship between body and mind just as the metro map to me was also an artery system. Les Halles, the center of Paris, became the heart, the biggest circle representing the connections of the train lines (or synapses) being at this place, at the center of the map. So, it’s about the dialectic of mind and body, which, of course, in the philosophy of the church, is separated. But I also find that this problem of perception frequently exists in the prevailing art world as well.

Duchamp’s Large Glass (Passage Interdit)

Cartesian catagorization is endlessly pervasive, a problem which plagued Duchamp’s career early in this century and eventually provoked him to drop out of the art world altogether. That’s also where I chose to do something which is at once conceptual and visual, craft and decorative. My real purpose was to make a connection, a bridge, between the long history of art and of civilization, which is what the idea of the use of this diagram image of the Paris Metro is about. So, the words became an extension of this. But they can also be read on the paper pattern from which the glass was conceived. In 1980 in Santa Monica California, I drew this pattern from floor to ceiling of my bedroom wall. The words were typed onto a reduced version of this original pattern only after the glasswork was completed and the words were applied directly to its surface. On it there are more than 160 names.

Paper pattern detail of “The Large Brain”

Also, accompanying this work is a glossary of most of the terms. As well I’ve catagorized them in various ways, crossed referencing them. Thus, there’s a literal way of looking at it, a poetic way of looking at it and it’s to me something which should be seen in an abstract sense as well. I’ve noted that when people have looked at this work they’ve often made their own very interesting relations between words which I myself never thought of. This was my intention but I’ve learned a great deal about it from what other people have said. Some of the specific placement of the names on the work was very intentional whereas some of it was more intuitive. After I finished the glass artwork, which took me about one year to do, I placed on it these words using some vinyl letters which have an adhesive back surface. They stick onto the glass. They’re not permanent. I had actually been thinking about my very first work, a biological diagram containing the names of its different parts. Once again a major artistic endeavor started out as a joke, but I didn’t want to choose such banal topics as American corporate and cultural imperialistic influence on Paris.

Q. Can you discuss a few examples?

A. OK. “NUCLEAR” is at the center. Also, “RRROSE.” One might derive from this: “Nuclear Eros, Eros Eros.” This is also a reference to Duchamp’s pseudonym, “Rrose Selavy.”

Detail of “The Large Brain”

There’s another reference to him here, “LHOOQ,” which are also the first five letters of my old car license plate in California. California was the first place where it became possible for car owners to pay a little extra money and choose their own personalized license plates. I don’t think that this is done anywhere in Europe.

Q. No, it is not done.

A. These became known as “vanity plates,” and some of them really were. Once I was driving behind a car with the license, “SMARBA.” I pulled beside the driver, motioned to roll down her window, and as she looked at me suspiciously I yelled, “I know the meaning of your license plate!” She replied, “Yeah, what is it?” I answered, “It’s MY surname spelled backwards!” Amongst the most clever ones were letter and number configurations which meant nothing unless read backwards through a rear view mirror. She laughed and drove on. Sometimes people would create letter and number configurations which would mean nothing unless read through the rear view mirror at the car in the rear. As much as most of the map is based in English language, many of the words are a play with language. I did not know any French back then, though I can speak French functionally now. Many of the names are strangely spelled for various reasons or appear at first glance to represent something that they are not. A big theme of my work and the use of stained glass is that one looks through something, inside of something. These diagrams I chose are looking into something, not at something. As I say, you cannot see a metro map, you cannot see an entire metro system. You cannot see the nervous system of any life form, be it at the bottom of the ocean or the the person who you are looking directly at. It’s something that we can draw or attempt to represent graphically but it’s not something that can actually be seen by the human eye. One might thus say that my work is deceptively “anti-retinal.”

Nautilus Drawing

Some of the letters are shiny metallic, like chrome, some are shiny gold and the others are black or white. The chrome ones are names of race horses and the gold ones are from such license plates. Everywhere I drove in California if I saw an interesting one I would write it down. Later I would apply the ones that I found ironic and in some way abstractly related to other names already placed on the work. There are some in French, but for example, FOLIE A DEUX, as the others chosen, is an example of how the influence works as well in the opposite direction. I studied a lot of books on the subject of the brain and psychology as well as other topics in the process of selecting the names for my imaginary “mental map.”

FOLIE A DEUX is used as a psychological term in English, which means two things: when two people have the same delusion or when one person is very ill and another person who is very emotionally close to that person begins to feel the same pain, even though it’s an illusion. This is close to, TWILIGHT ZONE, and then if you follow this line it comes to, INTEGRATED CIRCUIT, and CATASTROPHIC RESPONSEDIGITAL , DISCO STEWARDESSESDITTYWA and then it stops at STOP DANCINGSTOP DANCING was the name of a race horse. DITTYWA was a license plate. DISCO STEWARDESSES was a porn film title seen on a markee near my former studio in downtown L.A. I tried to choose names which just by their sound had some kind of a rhythmic or melodic ring, as in the case of alliteration just mentioned. Here’s another in French, CLAVESIN OCULAIRE. Some of these words are about the relationship between sound and light, which became very important in my work. CLAVESIN OCULAIRE was a sound/light organ that was invented in the 18th century. When certain keys were played on the organ they would correspond with different colored light. This was done with candles and colored tapes which were connected to a harpischord keyboard. Another reference to sound is: ARTREX. Intentionally I chose many words which have unanticipated literal meanings. ARTREX has nothing to do with art, nor medicine, nor dinosaurs. It was a product designed to emit a sound that human beings cannot hear, but that is very disturbing to rodents, and it was put into the underground of New York to drive the rats out of the subway. MULTIVIBRATOR is an example that people often think has a sexual connotation, but it doesn’t. It’s strictly some type of electronic device.

Q.I thought this too.

A.Well, that’s why I chose EPANOUISSEMENT. This means a flowering or a blossoming. I thought it a very beautiful French word for which I could not find a specific correlation in English, and as you rise to the top of this map the words usually respond to more positive emotions. So, this is a gameboard of voluntary choice of movement. After this you may continue upwards following one direction to AMAZING PLEASURE, and in one direction you BREAK OUT THE WINE and TIME OFF or another to FANTASTIC FUTURE, CIRCUIT GRAND QUATRE and ENLIGHTMENT FORTHCOMING (the highest point on the map). Now, here is a great example of French linguistic influence on North American culture: CIRCUIT GRAND QUATRE. This means, “Grand Slam Home Run,” a term used in baseball. This came from an article I once read about the announcers who had to translate for the Montreal baseball team. This is the greatest moment an offense player can have when he hits what’s called a Grand Slam Home Run. Four points (or “runs”), the highest amount possible in one play are scored. The lowest point on the map is: DIPLOMATIC TRUST, OR ALWAYS ON TOP, or TITANIC. Ok, others: REMOTE SENSING CIRCUIT, DA CAPO, which is also a musical term as well as the name of what many critics consider one of the most inventive psychedelic rock records ever made, by my favorite group to come out of my native town of L. A., named, “Love.” MOGI DOUGHNUT, this was a theory about when and where earthquakes strike, and this is next to SAN ANDREAS, which comes from the San Andreas Fault, considered to be the most dangerous earthquake area in California. Of course, I made this fragile artwork in California and there was a great earthquake not so long after it was shipped in late 1992 to Barcelona. Some of the words also came from personal experience and just anything at the time I was working on became part of the work. To me it was like painting with words and the metro line, in fact, that I took to come to where we are talking right now contains the names, which I mentioned: SUEHIRO, ATOMIC CAFE, EL NORTENO. These were restaurants in downtown Los Angeles where I often went when I was putting the words on the map. I suppose had I made the work in Paris those names would be very different. Suehiro was Japanese, Atomic Cafe, also a Japanese restaurant that was a hangout for sailors during World War II, during the ’80s became a trendy place for the artists who had moved into many abandoned warehouses of downtown L.A., and El Norteno was a Mexican restaurant just outside of my studio. DINE ALONE, which was the name of a race horse was appropriate, because often I dined alone in these places. DEPEND ON IT came from a childhood toy which is still very popular in the states. It’s a large version of the Eight Ball used in the game of billiards. Each time one looks at a small flat spot on the ball’s bottom, in that space a little sentence will appear, which will change every time you turn the ball over. You must always ask the Eight Ball a question which has a “yes” or “no” answer. So, if you ask, for example, “Will the world end tomorrow?” when you turn it over it might answer, “You can depend on it.”

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