Tom Friedman at the New Museum of Contemporary Art

Tom Friedman, courtesy of New Museum Digital Archive

In an interview with novelist Dennis Cooper printed in the Phaidon catalogue that accompanies the survey of Tom Friedman’s work currently at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, Friedman describes a pivotal crisis in which he cleared out his studio, boarded up the windows and closets, and painted everything in an intense, uniform white. Into this white space, this white box halfway between inner tabula rasa and a disinfected laboratory, Friedman brought ordinary objects from home, set them in the weirdly edgeless, fluorescent-lit space, and contemplated them, reflected on his experience of them, asked himself questions about them. “A) object,” Friedman writes in his text “Ingredients 1990”, “1) knowledge, a) name and type of object, b) function, 1) what does it do? 2) how is it used? 3) why is it used?...” One can easily imagine how, under the pressure of hour upon hour of solitary, meditative scrutiny, even the most mundane things would drift free of their common purposes, become unfamiliar, animated, and perhaps even demonic. Over the past few years, Tom Friedman’s meticulously installed shows at Feature Inc. have acquired near-cult status, in part because of Friedman’s uncanny talent for transforming commonplace domestic materials—hair, bubblegum, dust—into minutely crafted objects that are at once beautiful, funny, and unsettling. Friedman’s work manages to be both quietly understated and utterly provocative.

Friedman’s early structures are paradoxical singularities, combining pure minimalist geometry with what is not so much procedure or process as embarrassingly personal, almost solipsistic form of monastic discipline. In an untitled piece from 1990, the artist is photographed close-up while blowing a spit bubble.  Shot in grainy black and white, half his face brightly lit, the other half blurred shadow, the immaculate bubble is in sharp focus. The spit bubble is oddly beautiful because it is a near perfect form caught in fragile equilibrium on the threshold of inevitable dissolution, yet the photograph is grotesque and even obscene, he artist’s pale, thin lips stretched wide, the foam and ooze of the spit visible. In a well-known piece also from 1990, Friedman inlaid his own pubic hair in a spiral on a bar of worn, white soap. Whereas the messy, bodily character of the spit bubble is in plain view, the spiral on the bar is so precisely realized it is hard to accept that it is handmade out of what must be hundreds of follicles of pubic hair. The pristine spiral evokes the clean, self-evident forms of minimalist sculpture, and yet, while the works of artists like Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris assert a grandiose and transcendental purity, Friedman’s bar of soap is small and intimate, its tone is self-deprecating, as though it were inappropriate to show it in public at all. In another work from the same period, Friedman chewed some 1,500 pieces of gum and molded them into a sphere which is displayed wedged into the corner of a wall, suspended by its own stickiness. Like the pubic hair spiral, the bubblegum sphere evokes minimalism’s irreducible forms and concern with objecthood, and yet one cannot disassociate the bubblegum sphere from the inside of the mouth, the endless chewing, the saliva and stickiness.

The hair spiral and bubblegum sphere allude both to Pop Art, with its fascination with commodities and garish Americana, and also to readymades and the magical objects surrealists were fond of discovering in flea markets. For all their fanatical craft and elegant closure, they also encompass the intimate ritual of their own production: the piecing together of strands of pubic hair, the chomping of those 1,500 pieces of gum. Perhaps the most notorious work in Friedman’s unusual conversation with minimalism is the 1992 piece in which a tiny sphere of the artist’s feces is centered atop a cubed white pedestal. Much of Friedman’s art involves illusion and an inversion of scale, and here one approaches the bright pedestal with a certain bewilderment, for at least at the New Museum it is difficult to tell if there is a speck of shit on the pedestal or not. There is indeed a speck of something more-or-less dead center on the pedestal, but then the more one looks, the more specks appear on the shiny, directly lit white surface. The corroded, diminutive, matchstick figures Giacometti set atop heavy bases mocked the pomposity of raising sculpted figures onto pedestals; in Friedman’s piece, on the other hand, the viewer is as conscious of the column of empty space rising from the cube as of the difficulty of identifying the precisely measured bit of human waste placed in its center. In a different piece, Friedman did not put anything on the pedestal at all, and had a witch curse the space above it. Contrary to what one might expect, given the tedious prevalence of aggressively political scatological art in the 1990’s, Friedman’s feces sculpture is not exactly transgress. It is, rather, a limit-case of the probing of the objecthood of objects begun in the hair spiral and the bubblegum sphere: formally austere, and just a little vulgar, it is also a thing with a history which is difficult to focus in on and distinguish. “c) history,” Friedman writes, “where does it come from?”

The body of work which begins in the mid-1990s moves away from an investigation of simplicity to complexity, retaining Friedman’s idiosyncratic conceptual focus, his use of stray household materials, and his insane levels of labor-intensive craft. In this context, “complexity” turns out to have a great deal in common with “simplicity,” for in both cases Friedman is interested in the way an object is constituted by and encodes information, but now the objects have ambiguous boundaries and are in a continuous, scattering motion. In “Loop”(1993-1995), for example, Friedman cooked a pound of spaghetti, let it dry and curl, then connected it end-to-end in a loop. The result is a dense snarl of brittle lines that seem to mirror a path of thoughts that are playful, rigorous, and incredibly delicate: “Loop” looks like a breath could blow it away, a touch cause it to disintegrate. Indeed, many of Friedman’s most beautiful inventions are quiveringly delicate, such as his network of spider’s legs glued to a piece of paper, which is regrettably not included in the show. Friedman’s dazzling 1995 toothpick sculpture, in which thousands of toothpicks are jammed together in the shape of a starburst, is anything but delicate, but here the toothpicks seem to have reached a center of gravity in which their sheer density is causing them to explode outward, so that that sculpture seems at the point of violent dispersion. Complexity, for Friedman, always involves the limits of inundation and compression which point toward entropy.

Friedman has also explored information, technology, and complexity in several two-dimensional works. In a 1997 ink drawing, he connected thousands of dots with arrows and lines, creating an elegant, centerless, and infinitely proliferating diagram, the arrows giving on the sense of a set of directions so intricate they could never be followed. Exhibited on the floor, “Everything” (1992-1995) involved the writing down of every word in a dictionary in microscopic script on a large sheet of paper. The words are congested, squeezed in, barely decipherable from close up, and random in their arrangement. “Everything” has a quirkily melancholy quality, for the space of the paper seems too small to contain all the words with which we name and describe the world, and thus written down in cramped script, they look arbitrary and useless. In a way, “Everything” is emblematic of Friedman’s recent explorations, for it attempts to achieve a sublime totality and perfection within the limits of the small and homemade. Friedman takes Blake’s famous dictum of finding the universe in a grain of sand, as well as the ethic of American poets like William Carlos Williams and Robert Creely, who seek the lyrical in the ordinary expressed in everyday language and who influenced artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg, into the home. One imagines the dictionary Friedman used for “Everything”was a beat-up standard Webster’s that just happened to be lying around. Although Friedman has occasionally made use of digital technology, his aesthetic typically relies on the laborious work of the hands, of the tips of the fingers, and the clumsy finitude of the body. While Robert Smithson’s interest in entropy, in pieces like “Asphalt Rundown”, was rooted in the properties of matter, its weight, its frangibility, its latent energy, the pressure toward entropy and dispersion in Friedman’s work has to do with the boundaries of our capacity to make and perceive, and with the incredible fragility of our inventions, their precarious equilibrium. The more one looks at the words in “Everything”, the more they seem made up, fashioned, say, out of minute bits of fuzz, dust, hair, saliva, and shit, and are on the verge of dissolution. It was Smithson who commented that there is no fundamental difference between dirt and language.

As Bruce Hainley points out in his free-form catalogue essay, Friedman has been obsessed with self-portraiture in various forms from early on. This should come as no surprise, since so much of Friedman’s work incorporates as part of its meaning the act of its being made, the carrying out of the private ritual the artist sets for himself, such as staring at a blank sheet of paper for 1,000 hours. In 1994, Friedman carved a self-portrait of his head into a tablet of aspirin, and in a sculpture from 1999, he constructed a life-sized self-portrait in a characteristically slack posture, hands deep in his pockets, out of cubes of sugar, eroded sugar granules accumulating at his feet. Both of these portraits are at once dead-pan and deeply ambivalent, for he is forcing his image into basic commodities which also bear a problematic relationship to the self; they are the medicines and sweets we are addicted to, that help make our lives tolerable, but just barely. That Friedman’s vision of the self is not merely self-deprecating and comic but also darkly ironical is made clear by two pieces that are unfortunately not included in the show but are reproduced in the catalogue: a unique black-and-white photograph in which three hundred images of the artist in childhood taken by his father are superimposed into a cloudy, swarming haze, and a large C-print of the artist which he blotted out with thousands of arrows pointing to different parts of his body. The former suggests the futility of making the totality of childhood and memory wholly present, of unifying every version of one’s self into a single, coherent whole; in the latter, the artist’s image is not so much buried as erased, even dug out, by the precise arrows with which he is being identified. The arrows are part of a kind of map, a set of instructions, an accumulation of irreducible names, which attempt to represent the complexity of a body and self, and end up annihilating it.

Tom Friedman, courtesy of New Museum Digital Archive

What may be Friedman’s most impressive work to date, however, is his lurid construction paper sculpture of himself as violently torn apart, scattered in a lake of construction paper blood. First exhibited at Feature Inc. in the spring of 2000, Friedman’s splayed, dismembered construction paper form quotes Giacometti’s cruelly erotic bronze, “Woman with Her Throat Cut.” Unlike Giacometti’s surrealist masterpiece, however, Friedman’s construction displays the body’s hokey, ripped flesh, its ligaments, bones, and entrails, its stuffing, as though to demonstrate with what uncertain, dime-store materials the human body is actually made. The face is like a mask, one eye socket empty, the jaw separated from the mouth, the brains like confetti spilling back out of the head, the torso, with its crinkled bits of green clothing, slashed and churned. Friedman’s self-portrait has all the ghoulish wackiness of a virtuoso children’s Halloween project, and yet the expression on the face, and the way the piece deflates the human form to stupid, store-bought elements, is tragic and frightening.

For all the baffling power of individual pieces, their childlike playfulness, their zany beauty, their penchant for dense allusion and paradox, the survey of Tom Friedman’s work at The New Museum is surprisingly unsatisfying, and for reasons which bring to light the limitations of his work thus far. One of Friedman’s strengths is his resourcefulness and virtuosity, his capacity to make something out of anything, but this can easily turn into a mere stunt, and occasionally it does. For example, Space Station (1997), an intricate space station fashioned from an array of household objects and suspended from the ceiling, as well as the 1999 robot built out of cardboard and Styrofoam balls, are both fussy and literal. Like Tatlin, whose work the robot evokes, Friedman is interested in the relationship between technology and fantasy, and given that Friedman’s starting point is the lonely, American suburban home, this leads to adolescent sci-fi fantasies. “A few years after a machine was invented that could stop time in a designated space,” Friedman writes in a curious 1997 text printed in the catalogue, “like all other technological advancements, it was directed toward practical applications.” The difficulty with the space station and the robot is that they are clichés that leave little room for the fantasies of the viewer. The strangeness and implications of the hair spiral or the self-portrait of the artist as violently ripped apart expand with reflection, while the space station and robot, despite the fantastic subject matter, remain static, their interest resting in the mere fact of their having been made. Similarly, Friedman’s wondrously realistic fly, dragonfly, and spider, especially when considered in isolation, can seem like little more than astonishing handmade curiosities. Friedman’s work is sometimes misleadingly compared with that of Piero Manzoni and the Arte Povera artists of post-war Italy. Manzoni’s use of found material, of junk and detritus, was profoundly political: it was at once a way of distancing his work from modernism’s bourgeois aestheticism, and also of addressing the ruins of Europe’s civic and cultural life. Friedman’s art, by contrast, is private, and his use of household materials is a means to transfigure boring American domesticity, to invest it with beauty and  thought. His work is most effective when both the character of the material, the process, and the investigation remain visible and in dialectic with one another. The problem with the space station and the robot, and perhaps also with the insects, is that they are too clean and immaculate.

Tom Friedman’s several bodies of work do not exactly add up to anything overall. Although the strategies are often similar, the pieces do not develop one out of the other, forming a kind of narrative. The power of Friedman’s exhibits at Feature Inc. comes from the way individual pieces are part of a very delicate and elliptical constellation of images and ideas, and taken out of context, many of the works currently at The New Museum seem adrift, stripped of the meanings and association they were designed to elicit. The problem with a “mid-career survey” of a relatively young artist is that the emphasis is on representativeness and coverage rather than strength and conceptual coherence. A survey tends to freeze an artist’s work into easy, familiar categories, and Friedman’s work, hypersensitive and non-linear, is poorly served by it. Nonetheless, the New Museum show does the service to bringing wider attention to a deep and singular sensibility that is having increasing impact on younger artists. Hopefully, the show will encourage people to see Friedman’s work in the more intimate and appropriate context of a small gallery show. It should also be noted that the characteristically well-designed Phaidoncatalogue contains, in addition to a thorough documentation of Friedman’s work, an excellent essay by Adrian Searle and several illuminating interviews with the artist.


Daniel Baird