Frederick Abrams

The Underground Cathedral


Q. Why did you choose the map of Paris? Why not a map of another town?

A. Well, for one it was just my attraction to the graphic of it. Part of what my work became is a study of these maps in an aesthetic sense and it’s the most original and interesting one I’ve seen. Most metro maps that one sees were based on a concept for the London “Tube” underground that was designed by a young out-of-work engineer back in 1931.

Old London Tube Map
Old London Tube Map

It is based on an idea of the schematics of electricity. To make it very easy to read where you are going in the underground, all of the lines were color coded on vertical or horizontal or 45 degree angles and still are since that time. Most metro maps are designed like this now, because before to attempt to accurately visually represent the actual geographic proportions of that system left the traveller with the dilemma of following a colored noodle through a multicolored plate of spaghetti. Well, the French did something uniquely between the two. There are many angles but it is done in a very aesthetic, stylistic sense. It is at once graphic and very interpretative. It is not accurate geographically, which in any case has no purpose, but it gives a more accurate sense of the actual positioning of the lines and metro stations throughout the city. And as I say, it was the one that most reflected to me the link between man made and organic systems. Also if you consider French architecture, you see this in the buildings. The tops of most of the older buildings are angled. This is something you don’t see in most cultures. There’s a relationship between the angle, the curved line and the vertical and horizontal which is also characteristic of the streets of Paris. The city center is not on a grid as you find in most American cities and many other cities in the world.

Q. Where is the connection between “Les routes de La Grande Odalisque (The Large Brain)” and making a video film?

A.Well this occurred over quite a few years. There are a few very unpredictable elements which have inspired me, influenced my work and shaped my life in unimaginable ways. One, as I’ve mentioned, has been humor. Another is accident, which I find is often the source of the most amazing creative discoveries. The third is destined encounters, one which occurred in December of 1981 at a big party in my former downtown L.A. art studio. I showed “Les routes de La Grande Odalisque” for the first time, as a work in progress. Someone who I did not know came who told me that he had written to cities all over the world and asked them for information about their metro systems for a book that he wanted to compile of maps, information, graphics and photos, whatever. He asked me if I would like to participate with him. So I said, “Sure, why not?” One day he came to my home with two big boxes filled with this material that he had received from cities all over the world. Then he moved to Canada and I never saw him again. I had these two boxes with me for a very long time. That’s when I became interested in the comparative study of metro maps. I found about 40 of them in these boxes.

My father owned a business of restaurant kitchen design and he was the first person I knew of who was working with computer technology to revolutionize his business. He had a CAD (computer assist design) system, at that time a huge, monster computer, to make design for kitchens. With the assistance of one of his workers during after hours I drew some of the lines of the same Paris Metro map that had become the basis of the huge glasswork. We did this very accurately and then printed it out with what’s called a “Plotter” using colored ink printed onto a mylar material, a translucent sheet, not paper, like acetate but not transparent. A series of computer generated drawings derived from this which became my first illuminated artworks based on the same idea but with computer technology.

First CAD Drawings on Mylar, 1986

This was in 1986. Then I went to New York – I lived in New York for a short time in ’85 and ’86 – and I did a recording of a ride on the “F” Train, which is one of the lines of the New York Subway. For years I had played electric and acoustic lead and rhythm rock and folk guitar. I also wrote songs with lyrics which I sang and recorded a few professionally in L.A. with a studio engineer who was producing music out of a small room in his house with several ’60s rock legends, one of them Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. I had always felt a conflict between my popular music inclinations and developing art career and this became the first moment that I found an opportunity and reason to begin composing and playing a musical instrument for artistic purposes. It was also the beginning of my own studio recordings, which then were done with a small 4-track cassette machine. Over the recording of a ride on the New York Subway I superimposed short musical parts that were mostly my own original compositions as well as personal interpretations of traditional pieces intended to convey ritualistic experiences, such as a wedding march and a funeral. Between each station was a short musicial piece whereby you could hear the train sounds at the same time.

With these computer artworks which I laminated in glass, “The Large Brain” and other stained glassworks including the biological underwater images, I created my first installation. For this show I made another huge artwork based on a map of the city streets of Los Angeles with many laminated translucent acetate images.

This work is very different from the Paris Metro because the Los Angeles city map is a far more amorphous design and I conceived it accordingly. In this instance I patchworked together many varying textures of glass. There’s a little bit of colored glass, mirrored glass and different types of transparent glass as well as iridescent. In the installation I had it situated in front of the Paris map so you saw through one to the other causing an interaction between the two.

The Routes of the Grand Illusion (Shooting Star Triptik) and Les routes de La Grande Odalisque (The Large Brain), University of Southern California Atelier Installation 1986

The colors of Paris emaninated through the map of Los Angeles; the many glass textures of the map of Los Angeles distorted the map of Paris when viewed through its surface. You could walk around the map of Los Angeles and look through it from the front side or back and also see the Paris map on its own. The Los Angeles map also contains numerous laminated transparent acetate photocopied images, many of them the subway maps from the boxes fatefully dropped in my lap a few years earlier. I suppose that the metro maps from around the world that were placed throughout the city map of Los Angeles could say something of what we call the “melting pot” of culture in the U.S. and particularly in the coastal cities. Also, I wanted to make this contrast between these many cities which had undergrounds and mine which didn’t.

The Routes of the Grand Illusion (details)

There is one now that has been built slowly during the 90s as it was finally realized that the removal of a great tramway system many years earlier had proven a disaster of urban mismanagement. Also one could speak of “roots” and the relatively short history of the U.S., let alone southern California, since the first European settlers arrived and migrated across to the west. So the schematic iconography of the metro systems has something to do with the historical roots as well as influences of different urban centers in civilization. Where sound and music comes in is that I completed this installation with a continually playing recording of a ride in the New York underground with the superimposed musical pieces, some of them the sounds of pipe organ, obviously a cliche of the cathedral.

That’s the period that I started my travels. I went to New York and to Paris and when I came back returned to my father’s office where I programmed metro maps from ten different cities into this architectural system and manipulated them in different ways artistically in a sense never intended for I was by no means working with either a graphics or paint program.

CAD Drawing, London 1989

I then continued to make more colored ink acetate drawings, also never an intended purpose of a machine designed to mechanically reproduce architectural plans. Later these drawings were exhibited.

CAD Drawing, Paris 1989

Some of the images photographed directly from the computer moniter later became used in the film that I made. In fact, in the very beginning of the film you see a postcard image of the outside of Notre Dame at night. In the center of the front side of the cathedral where one of the Rose Windows exists, with a paint program of a multimedia computer purchased a few years later, I removed the Rose Window and replaced it with a map of the Paris Metro that I created on this architectural computer in 1989, and I mathematically rotated this map on one point clockwise twelve times.

There’s twelve repetitions and it looks very much like a kaleidoscopic image, all of the delicate lines blue on a black background. This is at the very beginning of my film. This serves as an example of the fact that I never imagined that I would be making a film until very late in the process of developing and accumulating all of the work that I did that is seen in the film.

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