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Zorns Lemma

Hollis Frampton (American, 1936–1984)


Medium 16mm film; color, sound; 60 min. Measurements No Measurements Credit Gift of the A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust Accession Number 72.22.2 Location Not on View


Zorns Lemma consists of three parts. The introductory section, without images, is a narration of the early-nineteenth-century edition of the Bay State Primer, a picture book used to teach reading. Frampton uses the word-picture relationship of the primer as a structure for his film. The central and longest part of Zorns Lemma is a continuous, silent cycle of one-second images of single words, each starting with one of the 24 letters in the Latin alphabet (which has no I or U). During the final section, we see two people moving across a snowy field, while six women read On Light, or the Ingression of Forms, written by Robert Grosseteste, the 11th-century bishop of Lincoln, England. This film takes its title from the mathematical principle, established by Maz Zorn in the 1920s, that "every partially ordered set contains a maximal fully ordered subset." Frampton, evoking a human impulse to establish order in the chaos of our experience of the external universe, contrasts the fixed sequence of the alphabet with an arbitrary and seemingly random "subset" selection of images. This struggle between order and chaos—approximating relationships of logic and emotion, mind and psyche, fact and memory—is a central part of the viewing experience as we struggle to keep track of the systems of the film. In Grosseteste's spiritual text, pure light is the antithesis of materiality; at the end of Zorns Lemma, Frampton ironically reverses this proposition by opening the lens to the ultimate state of film materiality—pure light.

Artist Bio

December 16, 1971
Ernie Gehr
272 Degraw Street
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11231
Dear Ernie:
Many thanks for your good letter to me, and such a thorough information sheet. I’m very sorry to be so long in answering you, things have simply piled up here lately. Ernie, we are completely programmed for the rest of thi3 season so will not be able to consider having you here for a screening and lecture until after next September. However, what I mentioned to Michael was that as soon after the l3t of the year as possible we are planning to send out a letter from our newly established film makers workshop offering it as a teaching facility to any film maker who wishes to teach (workshop, seminar or whatever). You will write up course descriptions, fee, dates, etc. We will publicize, then if enough students sign up, you fly into town and teach, if not, nothing is lost - everyone stands to gain. Various members have spare beds and are willing to house those who come, so no expense there either. We see it as a really good thing. You teach what you like (your speciality) they take what they like etc., etc., etc. The workshop includes 2 still labs, 8, super 8 and l6mm editing equipment (a Somembeck horazontal editor), sound mixing stuff, a fandberg and an animation stand.
I haven’t seen "Serene Velocity” yet Ernie, but keep hearing from Hollis, Michael & Stan Brakhage how very beautiful it is - so I’m eagerly looking forward to it.
Have a lovely holiday and do please forgive the delay in hearing from me. Sincerely,
Sally F. Dixon (Mrs.) Film Coordinator