A Renewed Appreciation for Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa (1940–1993) was a highly productive and prolific artist and gained critical acclaim worldwide. Many of his albums are considered essential in jazz and rock history. He is regarded as one of the most original guitarists and composers of his time. Zappa also remains a major influence on musicians and composers of today. He had some commercial success, particularly in Europe, and for most of his career was able to work as an independent artist. Zappa was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

Frank Zappa's short career as a visual artist lasted from 1958 until 1961, at which point his music career started to gain steam and left him little time for other pursuits. In the 1960s, this painting entitled Horny (oil on board, signed and dated “Zappa 61” at lower right. 23 ¼ x 64”) was displayed in the rehearsal studio of Zappa's famed Laurel Canyon cabin where he formed his band, The Mothers of Invention. The rehearsal studio later moved to a building on Hollywood Boulevard, and this painting was rehung there before being gifted to Ralph Morris, Zappa’s concert sound engineer, in 1972. The painting illustrates Frank Zappa's take on the difference between the male and female. Can you pick out the male and female instruments?

As told by Larry Fisher, TCC client:

“My best friend Rick was a prodigy musician since he was five years old and loved The Beatles and Frank Zappa when he was growing up. He lived and breathed music: his mother supported his love for this artform and got him drums, horns, guitar, and bass at a very young age. He first experienced Zappa in 1974 during the “Penguin in Bondage” tour, and when we became very close friends, we started going to every major concert worth seeing from late 1970's on. Together, we saw Zappa five times. When Rick grew older, he eventually owned 30 guitars and over 2000 albums. He was the oracle of rock and roll, any question about an artist or song he could tell you or play it for you from memory. Truly gifted and amazing.

While Rick collected guitars and records, I became an avid collector of Tiffany art glass and leaded glass lamps, plus illustrators from the 20th century and guitars. This year, I discovered the painting Horny by Frank Zappa at Bonhams after I was aware of a Tiffany piece in the auction. I knew of Zappa's art through a “History Detectives” program featuring a person who had found a Zappa collage in a California thrift store. I was fortunate to have picked up Horny, which was one of the last items in the auction.

Frank Zappa was a renaissance man and could do anything he put his mind to. He was the Mozart of the 60's and of our generation of rock and roll. Frank Zappa was an intense genius of music and a composer who experimented with technology and various styles to music, melding them together and formed his own. He challenged the establishment with his provocative thought. Frank experimented with art when he was in college from 1957 through 1961.There are only 10 or so known paintings in existence. Horny is one of the largest vertical examples of his work.
My dear friend Rick passed away in 2005. I was the executor to his estate and today, I am dedicated to commemorating our eternal love for rock and roll by continuing to collect various Frank Zappa memorabilia.”

After being painted more than five decades ago, Horny was brought to The Conservation Center, where our painting department restored the masterpiece to its original glory.

As narrated by Rob Datum, Associate Conservator of Paintings:

“Frank Zappa's original artwork titled Horny was painted on paperboard more than 50 years ago, and over time much wear and tear occurred. When the work arrived at The Conservation Center, we immediately noticed that the corners were compromised. They were severely dog-eared and in serious condition where much of the edges were frayed due to the paper-based material of choice, so the priority for treatment was to stabilize those areas.

Before caring for the paperboard corners, however, the painting had to be dry-cleaned. Since Horny was created with tempera paint, some of the areas are water-soluble. This made cleaning an extra challenge, so the conservators had to use equipment such as textile sponge, drafting pad, or erasers—things that don’t involve liquid—in order to accomplish this task.

The Paintings Department, working in conjunction with the Paper Department, joined forces to develop the best approach to tame the frazzled corners. Starch paste proved to be a powerful tool: we were able to layer-by-layer read here the paperboard; and to further stabilize, the corners were carefully weighted.

Next on the treatment list were the six original nail holes on the painting: three on top and three on the bottom. Horny was never framed by Zappa and purposely tacked on the wall of his Laurel Canyon studio. The new owner of this work wanted to remain faithful to the integrity of the work, which includes the nail holes. But much like the corners of the painting, the paperboard was frayed where the nail holes were present, so we had to use a similar glue-and-weight technique to consolidate those delicate areas. Conservation paint was also used to lightly mask the nail holes, so not to further accentuate them but at the same time keep all the original properties of the painting.

In treating this painting, it was amazing for me to watch Zappa’s work come alive in front of my eyes. I can only imagine what Zappa and his motley crew of musicians called The Mothers of Invention were concocting in Los Angeles back in the 1960s. As a musician myself, it was truly a pleasure working on an original painting by one of the greatest musicians of all time.”