As a technique for creating art, frottage is so closely identified with Surrealism, in general, and Max Ernst, in particular, that the link itself might be an example of the technique.
“Frottage” is French for “rubbing,” and it rubbed off on the boisterous Surrealist movement that in the troubled decades between the two World Wars was dedicated to unleashing the creative potential of the unconscious mind. When a sheet of paper is laid over a textured surface and rubbed with pencil or pastel, unexpected and evocative shapes, forms and tonalities can be produced.
At the UCLA Hammer Museum, the newly opened “Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings From 1860 to Now” is billed as the first museum survey of the genre. Ninety-two works by 48 artists were selected by Allegra Pesenti, former Hammer curator and now curator-at-large at Houston’s Menil Collection, where the show will travel in the fall.
Two-thirds of the works were made since 1960, including provocative examples by Roy Lichtenstein and Louise Bourgeois. There could have — and probably should have — been even more, such as Steve Roden’s eccentric rubbings from stone, which he then extrapolates into marvelous paintings and musical compositions. But the show’s recent work amply demonstrates artists’ ongoing interest in the technique.
It also raises the show’s most vexing question, which can be posed in two words: Why now?
Frottage isn’t exactly an obscure or complicated technique. Why did it finally emerge in the 1920s, and why has it remained relatively popular?
Perhaps the reason lies in its very simplicity. Even a curious child can make a rubbing. In a technological age, frottage is non- if not anti-technological. World War I’s brutal industrialization of warfare was a shocker, so a 1920s embrace of something at the other end of the spectrum is not surprising.
A rubbing is also an image directly connected to the world, not a product of pure imagination. In art-speak, it’s an index — a pictorial sign that maintains a physical tie to its referent. Photography, the dominant visual invention of the modern era, is indexical, and frottage is its cousin.
What it brings to the table is something that camera work — whether still, moving or video — cannot. Frottage is tactile. Touchy-feely rather than slick, the engrossing surface quality slows down perception.
Frottage is deliberate and unhurried, both in production and consumption. Those are traits in increasingly short supply as today’s on-demand digital revolution rolls on. Instagram it’s not.
Whether this is something the show means to espouse is impossible to say, though. Unfortunately there is no catalog. According to a museum spokesman, one is in the works; but without the actual art in the show available for consultation, the disappointing delay makes the future book of only secondary use.
Presumably the title dates — 1860 to now — are key. Spanning more than 150 years, the show expands backward and, especially, forward in time from the Surrealists’ heyday in the 1920s and 1930s.
It starts with the generation following the invention of photography, accelerates as mass culture emerged in the 1920s and proliferates in our time. Today the intangible, immaterial complications of digital technologies multiply.
Texas’ Menil Collection is especially noteworthy for its wealth of Surrealist paintings, sculptures, drawings and mixed-media works. Ernst, a German-born expatriate working in Paris, is the frottage pioneer. He kicked things off in 1925 with a rubbing made on the knotty wood grain of his well-worn studio floorboards.
Seven Ernst frottages from the Menil form the largest number of works by a single artist in the show. Among them is a painting study, “The Beautiful Season,” a hybrid of animal and machine at once fierce and scrawny. Suggesting a modern Trojan horse, the mythical beast has a spiky rib cage composed of rubbings taken from a gentleman’s comb.
Ernst was brutalized by his experience in World War I, when he was drafted into the army. That he might conjure a genteel mechanical image of wartime deception is no surprise.
A few works are direct homages to Ernst. The web of small hexagons in a tracing paper rubbing by Chicago-based Julia Fish clearly comes from an old-fashioned tile floor. That the pattern also produces a visual screen, somewhat like looking through a physically impenetrable chain-link fence, pushes the work into an abstract realm of distance and memory.
Another is “Untitled (Studio Floor),” a 2012 work by Sam Falls, a young San Diego-born, New York-based artist. Pinned to the wall, a scroll nearly 28 feet tall was made with colored pencils in a manner related to Ernst’s own studio-floor discovery. The excess is rolled up on the gallery floor — a format that recalls the cliff-side 1970s Earth rubbings of Michelle Stuart.
Falls’ drawing isn’t much to look at — fuzzy lumps, bumps and zigzags (his floor is cracked concrete, not wood) in pale rainbow hues. It’s one of few works here that’s not black-and-white, graphite being the most common frottage medium. (Do-ho Suh’s blood-red cloak of military dog tags is the chief exception.) But exploding Ernst’s modest floorboard drawing to monumental scale does say something about the technique’s relative enormity in subsequent art history.
Less direct but more evocative is an exceptional, 8-foot tall frottage by L.A.-based Ruben Ochoa. The rubbed wood in this instance is not a floor but a forklift pallet.
A stack of 17 pallets, rubbed in graphite along the sides rather than the face, is an image of labor and a product of it. The composition and scale relate to a viewer’s body, while the stacked repetition of forms suggests ancient layers of sedimentary rock.
Think burial. Poignant, even tender, it radiates an unexpected aura of mortality.
The relatively few frottages prior to the Surrealist efflorescence are mostly research works made from tombs and burial plaques, such as those by 19th century British archaeologist Herbert Haines. He was cataloging medieval English customs.
If the modern emergence of frottage is partly explained by accelerating camera-power, perhaps that also explains why cameras turn up as a subject. A decade’s worth of published “best of” photographic anthologies underlies the sooty, coal-black rectangles in Morgan Fisher’s blackened graphite rubbings of book covers.
They simultaneously celebrate and obliterate. They’re the dark, almost melancholy inverse of photograms, pictures made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of light-sensitive paper.
A recent Jennifer Bornstein drawing is a wax-crayon rubbing of the front and back of a 35-millimeter camera. It looks like a hulking automaton. The staring lens is at once monstrous and comical — a mechanical Cyclops merged with R2-D2.
The show includes a few surprises. The human attributes of a monumental, lifesize rubbing of a wicker chair by Alighiero Boetti — where on Earth did he find a sheet of paper 10 feet wide and nearly 9 high? — are heightened by a hieroglyphic surface flecked with animated marks. Belgian poet Henri Michaux grew a strange, linear construction of power lines from a small, earthy field of abstract chalk frottage.
The Czech Surrealist Jindrich Styrsky, an artist unknown to me, is represented by one of the show’s most haunted images, made not long after Hitler’s army rolled into Prague in 1939. Štyrský did not survive the war. A veritable epitaph, “Dream of the Alabaster Hand” shows a severed index finger, exquisitely drawn, laying as if in state on a frottage bed of foliate curlicues.
In this mournful frottage, the hand is dead; long live the hand.