Linda Francis, We Can Build You, 2013
Oil on wooden panel, 38 x 95 inches
This winter Brooklyn painter and writer Stephen Maine sat down with artist Linda Francis to discuss her involvement in the fields of new music and performance within the greater context of her painting practice. A transcript of their conversation follows.
Stephen Maine: For a while, Linda, you were involved with avant-garde music and performance as well as painting. Can you talk about correspondences between those two disciplines?
Linda Francis: Musicians talk about color, too.
SM: I didn’t know that.
LF: Not color qua color, but COLOR.
LF: Perhaps that’s the term. I’m a little fuzzy on remembering because it’s been a long time.
SM: I’m really not correcting you—
LF: You could! You could. Please do.
SM: I still don’t know what it means.
LF: It means—let’s say when we look at a visual color, it has a kind of hue, overtones and undertones, the same way music does. You look at a red, you kind of see an aura of blue. The thing that it’s next to gives it an aura of something else.
LF: Musicians have the same thing. They’re talking about the suppleness of the tone, the kind of character that comes out of whatever instrument is being played, that gives it color.
LF: I don’t know.
SM: First, there’s the tone, the note itself—which might be analogous to hue.
LF: Yeah yeah.
SM: Then there’s amplitude, or volume.
SM: Then there’s morphology, like a sound that gets big and then trails off—has a shape. Timbre refers to what you’re talking about regarding—
LF: Oh, timbre!
SM: Like, “tim-ber”
LF: Timbre, okay.
SM: The particular kind of voice the instrument has. A middle C on a piano is different from a middle C on a tuba. Does a tuba even hit a middle C?
LF: I don’t know. I really don’t know a lot about instruments.
SM: Oh, great. What are we doing here?
LF: Well, what are you writing about? What it means to artists to—
SM: I’m writing about painters’ relationships to different kinds of avant-garde music.
LF: Well I can just tell you what I think about that, in those terms, really fast. And that is: we use the same formal mechanisms. Exactly the same. As a matter of fact— I’ll describe this one performance I did. Basically, Cage is doing the same thing that we’re doing. We’re manipulating formal relationships. That’s what he’s doing. He was doing it according to chance but in a certain way we do the same.
SM: Okay, but Cage scored everything.
LF: Yeah, but it’s how you score it. Have you ever seen those things? There are many people who scored on graph paper — Oh, Morton Feldman, you know his stuff?
LF: He scored things on graph paper. Not on the usual staff, with the clef or whatever.
SM: I’m trying to make a distinction between music that’s scored in some fashion and music that’s not—meaning improvisational.
LF: The big thing when I was involved in music was improvisation. Feldman is a perfect example of that. And who else—let me think—everybody…
SM: Can you describe how improvisation worked in Feldman? Was a lot left up to the individual instrumentalists?
LF: You would see a paper, and the paper would have instructions on it. Depending on how they annotated that, that’s what the musicians would take off from. I never played anything, but I painted with it.
Anyway, sometimes they would have, you know, whatever kind of scoring they would have, very often it was nothing but an abstract sign, or it was some instruction like “get up and walk around” [laughs] or “get up and sit down” or do this or do that, or nothing… It would be a place where they would start, and it was incumbent on every musician to improvise their position. It was amazing—because everyone had to be so on it, so working in the second. They didn’t have a score in their heads that they were trying to emulate. They really were challenged every minute. And they came from jazz, I think.
SM: This is Feldman you’re describing?
LF: Oh everybody, not just Feldman. All the young people who were writing.
SM: Give me some names?
LF: I worked with a composer named Gregory Reeve. Somebody told me he died. I haven’t seen him since I was 20 so I don’t know. He worked with a lot of people Through him I met Fred Rzewski, I met Phil Corner. He worked with MEV [Musica Elettronica Viva]—did you ever hear of them?
LF: It was an electronic music ensemble. There was the S.E.M. Ensemble — that you must have heard of, right?
LF: They came from Columbia. Malcolm Goldstein, the violinist?
LF: Oh! Fantastic violinist. You really gotta know this guy. I sure he’s still somewhere… [laughs] Terrific improvisational brain.
SM: In this kind of improvisation you’re talking about, what’s the dynamic between or among the various musicians? Is it like a jazz ensemble, where they’re kind of independent from one another, each with their own voice, and each solo fills a certain duration of time?
LF: There’s a form there. It’s not a rigid form, but it’s about saying when you come together, so lets say you can improvise from this point on the score to that point, they would do things like that. They would say, okay, point B, and you would go from point B to, well, to wherever you went. It really taxed an audience, and it taxed the people who would be playing.
Let me describe Red Gongs to you, which is the one I did with Gregory [Reeve]. I don’t where you would find documentation about this. I’ve been very bad about most parts of my life. But you could probably find it somewhere. I don’t know about him, though. I haven’t dealt with him and I don’t know where he is. I think he’s dead.
In any case, he did a piece called Red Gongs that was named after Calder. [Alexander Calder, Red Gongs, painted aluminum and copper, 1950.] Just the idea of pieces passing, pieces having a kind of structure that was very variable, was really important to him and everybody else at the time. Red Gongs was scored. I did it three times with him. Once it was at Hunter, once it was at Town Hall, and once it was at the University of New Hampshire.
SM: And your role was—producer? Stage manager?
LF: No, my role was painter. Okay? It was scored for two percussion sections, an entire orchestra, and “painter.”
SM: Oh weird. That is so weird.
LF: [laughs] So this is what “painter” did: “painter” erected a gigantic—well over 12 by 10 feet—a frame over which I stretched clear plastic. I mic’d the back of it. I used phosphorescent paint. It was tacky as hell, but it really was—it was a thing. This was erected on stage, a proscenium stage. And audience sees the orchestra and the painting. I didn’t obscure many people. So you could see the whole orchestra, or most of it, and the painting was right there.
SM: The audience sees the painting and sees you?
LF: I’m facing the painting and the audience is behind me. I’ve got buckets of paint. Buckets of paint. And giant brushes. And every time I make a stroke they can hear it.
SM: That’s far out.
LF: It was great. The scoring of this particular piece—
SM: What was the sound like?
LF: Of the brush?
LF: Wonderful. It was different depending on what I did. If I was fast, it would actually be a “whoosh.” The slower it went, you’d hear like a drag. I don’t know how to describe that.
SM: So it was percussive, among other things.
LF: Among other things. And it was very loud so that it really kept up with the rest of the orchestra. It didn’t overshadow it. His sound people figured that out. This was my idea to do that, but his sound people figured out how to adjust the tones of it.
SM: Is there is a recording? Or a video?
LF: There might be, I don’t know.
SM: In what year was this?
LF: I don’t know [laughs]. I’m not sure. I’ll look back and see if I can find anything.
SM: Well, were you still living in New York when this happened?
LF: Oh yes. I was always living here. I’m from here. But this had to be the 60s. Where in the 60s? It was when I was in school, and I left school in ’69 so it had to be something like that—middle 60s to late 60s, something like that.
SM: So post-E.A.T., all that Rauschenberg stuff.
LF: Oh yeah. We could probably zero in on it if I go through all my junk. My archives, my boxes of garbage.
SM: Sounds like it could be fun…
LF: Could be moldy. I’ll probably get an allergy attack.
SM: Thinking about correspondences between painting and music—audience, rhythm—I never thought the connection would be this close. That’s amazing to me, to actually mic your paintings for a performance…
LF: Let me tell you about the Town Hall scene! It was during that piece, Red Gongs, but in the lobby, before you get into the auditorium. I don’t know if Town Hall has been changed or not but anyway, there’s a big lobby inside, an internal, you know, lobby — in the lobby —
LF: Yeah, as you come in, after you gave your tickets, you came in and there’d be a big—place to hang out.
LF: Right, Okay? So, then you’d go into the—whatever it was called—
SM: We’ll use “lobby,” that’s good.
LF: But there’s a name for it, I don’t remember.
SM: We could call it an anteroom, we could call it a—
LF: No! Its not that, it’s an actual, formal name, like an intermezzo, an inter— When you’re at an opera, and you go out and have a coffee—it’s the same deal. Except this doesn’t have coffee.
LF: Anyway, it’s that. I put two boxes in that space and they were, I’m not sure how big they were but probably three by three [feet] square. At the time, you’ve got to realize, this was the 60s, we didn’t have florescent things, like we didn’t have things that were far out. It was just the beginning of all those things. I made a box that had a fixture inside it so it glowed. The box was just white plexi. And I invented that! I invented that before it was invented but I never thought it was anything. I just thought, okay, this is a good idea.
SM: So like a translucent white Plexiglas box emanating light?
LF: Right. Then down the way, in this same space, place, was another box the same size with holes in it, in which I had—this is a Neanderthal technique—which I had put a gigantic basin in the bottom with a block of dry ice, and so smoke poured out of the holes [laughs].
SM: it was perforated with a lot of holes?
LF: Yeah, it was just that, what do you call it, that stuff people hang stuff on, with little holes. Masonite with holes.
LF: Painted shiny white, and all this smoke pouring out of it. Very cute. But the point of all this is that all these things—
SM: How close, these two boxes, they were close together?
LF: Not that close. They were far enough apart so that they were just objects that people would mill around, and things would happen.
So the point is the equation of sound with all kinds of light. And space, and particles basically, ether and sound. Now earlier you mentioned the electromagnetic spectrum. The visible spectrum is part of the larger electromagnetic spectrum and you go down some and you get radio waves. Interestingly enough, it’s only limited by our own apparatus. Presumably there are various types of animals that can hear x-rays, that can see x-rays, et cetera. So it’s the same continuum. At one point I made some paintings where I was trying to determine the frequency of the color. So—what kind of tone it would have as a sound. It’s not a science that you can— it’s nothing that you can talk about. You could make these conjectures, but you don’t know.
SM: Your imagination is essentially speculative.
LF: My approach has always been pretty conceptual without thinking of it as conceptual. It’s just thinking things through.
SM: When I think about the correspondences between music and painting, rhythm comes to mind. As you know, Cage was anti-regular-rhythm. He was interested in rhythmic structures but not the regular beat of jazz. He said something very funny, he said that a regular rhythm is convenient and useful when he had to catch a bus, say…
LF: [laughs] So good.
SM: …but that he didn’t associate it with the interesting parts of his life.
LF: He said to me once, I had made a poster for him when I was in school. I didn’t know him but I was conscripted to make this poster. That’s how I met him. And this poster had some sort of strange floating strange shapes, forms that were “formless.” And they happened to be brownish red. That’s all it was, floating strange shapes and the information. And he wanted to meet me because, he said, he looked at this stuff and said, oh she must know that I’m a mycologist—his hobby was finding mushrooms.
SM: He made a little living at it, for a time.
LF: Yeah! So when we met he said did you know I did this, and I said no and he loved that! Because that’s the kind of correspondence that he loved. I didn’t really know him at all. Things that are chance that turn out to be serendipitous, that aren’t chance, in a sense. He really understood intuitively, I don’t think it was an intellectual decision, but I think he intuited that chance has rules and they will happen, and that’s why he did that very famous piece where he threw the I Ching. Some of the last things he did, I remember, were readings at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s and other places. He took a computer and he would feed in some gigantic pieces of literature or poetry by other people—or even the phone book, I think he did one time—and he would feed it in, mix it up, print it out and read it. It would be in line form. He would read it and you could sit there and listen to it and make sense of it.
LF: Not in a linear way, but in an associative way. Very much like how poetry works when it’s good, actually. So it was amazing because the idea is, well, what is knowledge, and how do you know something? What I’m trying to say is that in my way of thinking chaos is exactly that. People talk about chaos—by the way, I have to tell you that I had an exhibition in 1982 in Denmark that was called “The Order of Chaos.” And that was before people were talking about it here. I was always interested in contradictions.
SM: You mean, before the popularization of chaos theory?
LF: Before everybody had computers, actually.
SM: Right. 1982 was what, ten years before personal computers became mainstream.
LF: There were two books about it. One was a paper and one was a book. Anyway, the idea is that “the order of chaos” is a not contradiction. That’s what I’m getting to. Cage really got that. That chaos is orderly. Randomness is orderly.
SM: The one time that I saw Cage perform was with Merce at St. Mark’s. Merce did a solo piece and Cage was upstairs, on the balcony…
LF: I produced that.
SM: The one with the broomstick and the folding chair?
LF: It was a window pole.
SM: A window pole… okay.
LF: We were in the audience.
SM: This blows me away! I can’t believe it!
LF: That was a performance to benefit Danspace.
SM: [laughs] That’s right. This is incredible.
LF: I can’t believe that you actually….
SM: I remember it vividly.
LF: This is great, right? And Merce threw the pages as he danced…
SM: And Cage… played that stick— I mean he played it on the floor, all the way around [the balcony], and then there was a pause, we can’t see him, we know he’s up there…
LF: You want to know how it started?
SM: There was a pause…
LF: Okay, go ahead.
SM: …and then we hear a folding chair, the unmistakable sound of a folding chair scraping the floor boards. It got a big laugh, as I remember.
LF: He loved it.
SM: It was very, very funny.
LF: He loved it. He loved that performance. He loved doing it. But I’ll tell you how that happened, if you want to know.
SM: What year was that? Let’s talk about years, c’mon. Mid-80s, right?
LF: It had to be. I was still living in the city then. I have a photograph of Merce doing some things, in time, so he’s blurred. I remember taking that [photograph]. Anyway, I went to John because by that time I knew him sort of well, and I called him and said you need to do a Danspace benefit, and of course they would love it if Merce would come, would you do it with Merce? He said I don’t know. I said John. He said okay, we’ll do something. I said okay, good—just do something, you know? [laughs] And aside from giving him the date and time to show up I never said another word to him. I can’t remember who was the director of Danspace at the time, but I said you just have to not worry, that’s all, just don’t worry. They’ll show up and whatever they decide to do, I’ll make it happen. She says okay, good. So there’s a period of time and they had to do something.
So [before the performance] John comes in, I’m standing around, Merce is already like standing like this [blank expression]—
SM: Looking up, looking around—
LF: Yeah, looking like he wasn’t there. He always used to do that! He had a sheaf of paper in his hand. They were the pages he danced with. They were instructions to him for something else. I don’t know what. To this day, I don’t know what they were. He told me they were instructions for movement but he never used them.
So he’s standing there looking around and John was there—I think we always got along because the two of us always smiled a lot [laughs]. John is standing there with a grin. I said you ready? He goes, yeah, let’s go up on the balcony. This is like a half hour before the performance. We go up, he looks around and says do you have a pole of some kind? I say yeah, I have a window pole. We go over to one of these giant poles to open the top windows. And they have metal tips. He just lit up. He goes, I want that! So I got someone to get it down.
SM: I love this. Talk about just using what’s at hand.
LF: That’s the point—he would never do anything else. But I think he’d thought about it before, about what the church looked like what the space itself looked like. I said so what’s going to happen? He said I’ll just stay up here during the whole performance. I said perfect. We had a tech person with him, I said just tell him if you need anything else. He said I probably won’t. I said but he’ll be here if you need something. And that was it. Then they announce it, and Merce shows up, I’m going like—please, God! [laughs]… and they start to perform.
…I told you about the mushrooms because I wanted to describe a perception I had because of his talking about mushroom hunting. He told me many times he got really ill, really ill because he would eat something that was poisonous. He would joke about it, but from that I learned about his risk taking. His whole enterprise was risk taking, the whole thing was. When you go that far into randomness and devote yourself to that, you are in the risk zone at all times. And you can go past it, and he really went past it. What could you do more than that—putting your life in harms way? He was one of those who like risks. That’s what I think. He never said that to me, but I felt that from him, that it was important to push as far as he could push.