ponedjeljak, 29. listopada 2012.

Fred Tomaselli - slikarski radio gaga

Detail Image

Pozitivna dekorativna psihodelija (u kolaže su ukomponirani tablete, listovi marihuane, pravi kukci i cvijeće...). Slike se gledaju kao što se uzima LSD.

ArtTalks: Fred Tomaselli na Vimeu


Detail Image
 Detail Image
 Detail Image
  Detail Image
 Detail Image

Fred Tomaselli’s Magical Realism: The Brooklyn-Based Artist Opens a Hometown Retrospective


 “It’s a pretty ferocious little world,” Fred Tomaselli said, pointing his right index finger at the central image of a faded Tibetan thangka hanging on the wall of his north Williamsburg studio. “This guy is getting flayed to death, and this one in the center is the angel, but they’re both fucking and devouring each other. It’s very biker, very metal,” he said.
Mr. Tomaselli is known for his own ferocious little worlds–the painter creates intensely intricate mixed-media constellations dancing under layers of clear epoxy resin. His works, which combine pills and leaves next to exacto-knifed images from seed catalogs and ornithology guides, are highly organized, labor-intensive kaleidoscopes against black backgrounds, pointillist in their close-to-surface reveals. “With my work,” the Santa Monica-born artist said, slouched in a chair in his studio, “there’s the initial frisson, say, of not quite understanding the difference between the real things, the photographic things and the painted things; they all sort of blend together.”
‘With my work, the differences between the real things, the photographic things and the painted things all sort of blend together.’
Opening on Friday, Oct. 8, is Mr. Tomaselli’s first major solo exhibition in New York, at the Brooklyn Museum. A midsize, mid-career survey, the show, which originated at the Aspen Art Museum, includes some 50 paintings, collages and photograms.
At 54, Mr. Tomaselli is fit, with a slight hipster slouch. A reformed L.A. punk in dark washed jeans, a thinly striped button-down shirt and black double-knotted New Balance sneakers, he wears no jewelry save his wedding band and has no tattoos. His left earlobe, though, is long, like flattened Silly Putty, revealing a pinprick hole, the war wound of a lobe once earringed. Although he now drives a carpool for his 12-year-old son and goes home around 6 p.m. for dinner and MSNBC or The Simpsons, there remain tinges of the 20-something surfer kid. He says “far out” not in a Jeff Spicoli way, but rather in admiration of hearing something interesting.
Raised in Orange County in the 1960s to working-class immigrants (his mother worked as a domestic for David Weisbart, the Hollywood producer responsible for Valley of the Dolls). Mr. Tomaselli was deeply affected by the double reality of theme parks and drugs that surrounded him. “It really scrambled my sense of reality. And what’s funny is, I think L.A. was sort of a harbinger for the way the country eventually went. This mollification of America, this theme-park-ification, the culture of plastic surgery, I think it started in California and spread like kudzu.”
An open drawer under the cushioned bench he uses for naps–”I’m old now, so I nap”–reveals dozens of oversize clear aspirin bottles of pills. Organized by color, size and shape, the pharmaceuticals, which come from his doctor, look more like dulled pearls or Lemonheads and Good & Plenty candy than Oxycotin and Benadryl. A flat filing cabinet nearby houses stacked pages of collage cutouts: Expertly sliced collections of eyes, beaks, arms and penises are ready for use when a certain image is needed for a work. Throughout our interview, Casey, Mr. Tomaselli’s assistant of 12 years, is busy packing.
“He’s a control freak, if you’ve noticed,” said Brooklyn Museum curator Eugenie Tsai, who has known the artist since the late ’80s. “He is so systemic and so organized and yet so unfettered; I find that such an interesting combination. There is this amazing sense of craftsmanship that I associate with the Swiss”–Mr. Tomaselli has dual citizenship, as both his parents were Swiss immigrants–”this meticulous ability and all the little cutout things, it’s incredible.”
Given Mr. Tomaselli’s deeply methodical organization, Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson’s idea to arrange the show taxonomically–an orderly breakdown of the artworks by “species”–makes a lot of sense. Ms. Zuckerman Jacobson said she chose the taxonomical organization because she wanted to impose upon Mr. Tomaselli’s works the same classification rubric that he uses within them. (Mr. Tomaselli admits he told her, “That’s a terrible idea,” but it grew on him.) Now, three main galleries comprise the show, the first room focusing on Mr. Tomaselli’s abstract works, the middle gallery grouping together his more figurative pieces and the third room acting as an aviary of sorts with his more recent bird paintings. The organization also worked out to be more or less chronological. “I felt that a selective survey was very ripe and appropriate at this point in Fred’s career.”
Mr. Tomaselli’s use of marijuana leaves and pills, combined with the psychedelic jewel tones and patterns formed by the materials, have earned him a reputation as “the drug guy.” Ms. Zuckerman Jacobson laments, “I wanted to break that. The pills were a sentence-ender, but there is so much more.” And the exhibit follows that transition and shift in focus. The first gallery includes collage paintings, almost all including pills or made exclusively of pills, such as the minimalist Black and White All Over; the second and third gallery mark Mr. Tomaselli’s ascent into the Baroque–deeply detailed splendors, some cobbled into a whole from up to 10,000 tiny images. In Starling, one of the works created intently for the Brooklyn Museum exhibit, the bird’s throat, chest and stomach is collaged with green bugs, ostensibly the food the bird has digested. “It seems more about his immediate life but maybe it’s just that his life is shifting,” said Ms. Tsai.
The show also marks an evolution of Mr. Tomaselli both as an individual and as a painter. Ms. Zuckerman Jacobson noted, “In his most recent works, he really paints in a way that he didn’t before. The early works were paintings, but there was really no paint in them.” The works in the final gallery reveal enormous birds of collaged materials surrounded by swaths and swirls of painterly impasto. Unlike his other works, these most recent paintings are raised and tactile to the touch, with the paint on the surface rather than trapped under the slick veneer of resin.
Indeed, the show at the Brooklyn Museum is seminal for Mr. Tomaselli, who sees it as one of many life shifts currently facing him–his studio move to Bushwick, his son soon entering teenagedom, his longtime assistant marrying Mr. Tomaselli’s neighbor. “There aren’t going to be many more visits to this studio,” he said, looking out the windows onto Driggs Avenue, a tinge of nostalgia on his breath.
Mr. Tomaselli moved to Williamsburg from California in 1985 and identifies deeply with the borough. While lunching at the museum cafeteria, a Brooklyn Museum curator asked why he was excited to have the show there. “Because it looks so good and I live in Brooklyn!” he said with a shrug and a grin, going back to his mac ‘n’ cheese. He owns a home near the Graham Avenue L Stop, has been an eyewitness to the hipsterfication of Williamsburg and is ready “to get the hipsters out of my hair” and move to Bushwick–or as he calls it, Bougewick. The painter Amy Stillman, an old friend of Mr. Tomaselli’s, convinced him to check out the swanky converted industrial building that houses his new studio near the Morgan Street L Stop. “The place is nicer than it has to be; it’s super-deluxe, super-yuppie.” The two-room studio formerly housed a PR firm that outfitted it with slick cubicles and solar panel lighting. “I’m going bourgeois, and I feel really weird about it. I’m not sure how to make it messy. I have to fuck up the floors right away.”
The area “kind of reminds me of Williamsburg 20, 25 years ago,” said Mr. Tomaselli. In 1985, moving from Los Angeles, he got a $300-per-month storefront apartment in the then still dubious ‘burg. “It was messed up around here a little bit then. I got mugged a couple of times; there were drug dealers everywhere”–all said with a grateful nonchalance–”literally. I didn’t see anyone that looked like an artist when I got here, but you know they were around, they were in little nooks and crannies. You see somebody with an Act of God haircut and you go, ‘Oh, they went to college, they’re some arty person.’”
“I’ve lived my abject lifestyle; I don’t want to do that anymore.” He admitted he enjoys getting The New York Times delivered to his door and having access to a 24-hour bodega, and unlike a Bushwick Freegan he recently read about, he prefers not to have bedbugs. In fact, when he recently bought some clothes at the Gap, he made sure to throw them in the dryer to zap any potential predator. Of Williamsburg today, he said, “I’m very happy not to get mugged, but it could have stopped changing here 10 years ago and I would have been happy. Williamsburg used to be ugly and cheap; now it’s just ugly and expensive. I’ve never lived anywhere else in New York. I forgot to move to Park Slope, I guess, I forgot to be a yuppie.
“It’s the end of my era here,” Mr. Tomaselli mused to himself more than to The Observer, looking around the room. “Maybe I’ll move into this fancy new studio and be completely blocked. It could be paralyzing.” His assistant, Casey, reached up for the globe suspended from the ceiling to the right of Mr. Tomaselli’s drafting table and placed it softly in a cardboard box just its size. “No, it seems like a good time to shake things up a little bit.” After all, “I’ve got my little mid-career retrospective going on.”

Fred Tomaselli

by David Shields

Field Guides, 2003, photo collage, gouache, acrylic, and resin on wood, 60 × 84”. Images courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, NY.
“I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.” Artist Fred Tomaselli could have easily said this, as contemplating his body of work from the past two decades can attest, and the same goes for David Shields, who for his recent book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto borrowed from James Joyce the “scissors-and-paste man” sentence which appears among thousands of others he uses by a roster of fellow authors. A mind-boggling roster, to be sure, since Shields cares to exhibit himself more as a prodigious reader than an original writer in his book, perhaps in a way comparable to that of Tomaselli, who relinquishes mark-making and instead establishes himself primarily as a virtuosic viewer laboriously compiling the astounding archive he culls to assemble his works.
To be truly loyal to the spirit of Tomaselli and Shields’s endeavors, the opening statement should have been snuck in without quotation marks. “I hate quotations,” reads another entry in Shields’s book, this time by none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson, who might have found them redundant and makes a compelling case for the appropriated nature of our “customs, laws, our ambitions, and our notions of the fit and fair—all of these we never made; we found them ready-made; we but quote from them.” Possessives would have been omitted as well. The majority of entries in Shields’s Reality Hunger refute the possessives claiming the book as his, just as Tomaselli admits that more and more he sees himself as a mere “conductor to the collective voices of the various authors that combine into [his] images.”
Yet old habits die hard, and, to be frank, the utopianism of the critical theory purporting the inevitable death of the author might seem rather quaint in the 21st century. What was missing in the diagnostics of the ’60s and ’70s was an understanding of the pliability of the definition of authorship, which would come to embrace practices based on postproduction, as much as an awareness of the fact that appropriation-based art is as old as the book. It is works like those of Tomaselli—merging, among others, folk art, Romanticism, and visionary traditions—that remind us that appropriation art not only applies to the tautological practices introduced by conceptualism. It does not have to shun the sublime. In Reality Hunger we find a telling quote by Goethe: “What would remain to me if this art of appropriation were derogatory to genius? Every one of my writings has been furnished to me by a thousand different persons . . . ”
What follows is a conversation between Shields and Tomaselli on these and other matters conducted via email in late spring. Witness what Sven Birkerts (also quoted in the section on collage in Reality Hunger) calls “the shapely swirl of energy holding shattered fragments in place, but only just.” —Mónica de la Torre

David Shields We’re both products of the post-hippie California culture of the ’70s. I think we share a sense of emerging from a culture that had lost its idealism and found drugs to be the primary refuge. You’ve been in New York for some time now, but do you see your artistic vision as still shaped by living in California in the decayed ’70s, a “culture of the unreal” in which you had to dig deep to find your own meanings?
Fred Tomaselli California played a significant role in inventing and perfecting our “culture of the unreal,” and my sense of reality has been forever altered by growing up there. Back then, both the left and the right were actively manipulating reality in rather novel ways and a lot of those manipulations escaped like kudzu to infest the rest of America. On the right, you had the corporate-entertainment/government complex, which gave us Disneyland, Hollywood, Richard Nixon, and, of course, Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s masterful blending of entertainment and politics first succeeded in California. After he became president, our nation of toddlers would never again accept anything less than “happy talk” from its future leaders. At roughly the same time you had post-Manson/Altamont California, which was not a very pretty place. You had the Symbionese Liberation Army literally going up in flames and throngs of burned-out hippies disappearing into the New Age, but all that seemed to be happening somewhere else, like in rural communes or on TV. What I mostly saw was a baroque mix of youth culture on the skids: coked-up disco freaks, gang bangers, bikers, flamboyant glam rockers, skuzzy stoners and, a bit later, punk rockers.
Like many disaffected, white, working-class youth at that time, I was a stoner (a hippie without ideology, I guess) and then I eventually morphed into a punk rocker. While I slogged through the big wipeout of the ’70s, another crash-and-burn was going on as modernism was coming undone. All that utopianism had been reduced to smoldering rubble and it seemed appropriate to dig into this trash heap of history and see if there was anything worth saving. The one big common denominator in all of this was our culture of escapism. Even though serious artists weren’t supposed to make escapist art, it seemed that escapism was our dominant commodity—it was responsible for the shape this country was in. It was also somewhat responsible for the shape I was in, so I started there.
DS In the recent monograph of your art, you say, “I take mundane objects and charge them with new meaning.” I suppose you might think of that as a kind of escapism—or simply a reimagining. It’s a key element of Reality Hunger as well—the idea of taking pieces of the world and using vision and intelligence to make a new statement from found objects. Why do you choose a certain object to use in your art? How do you know whether you’ve chosen the right one?
FT Initially, I was very self-conscious about how art functioned and I used specific objects to illustrate my concerns. In the mid-’80s, I was making installations that were modeled after theme parks. I was primarily interested in delivering an immersive, escapist experience to the viewer while simultaneously commenting on that experience. These installations often attempted to emulate the modern landscape with the trash that was assaulting it. For instance, in 1984 I made a work entitled Current Theory, which consisted of hundreds of tethered, undulating Styrofoam cups blowing in the breeze of electric fans. A lamp raked light across the cups as they swayed back and forth on the floor of the darkened space. This light accentuated the highlights and shadows of the cups, making them look a bit like white caps on the ocean, or the garbage floating on top of its surface. The soft hum of the fans, the low theatrical lighting, and the cups’ rocking motion helped to create a meditative and hypnotic environment. By the way, this work was really indebted to the installation art that had been kicking around LA for a while—Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Bruce Nauman, and Ed Kienholz were all big influences.

Current Theory, 1984, styrofoam cups, thread, tape, electric fans, clamp light, chairs. Dimensions variable.
After doing these installations for a number of years, I started thinking about the rhetoric surrounding premodernist paintings and how it dovetailed with some of the language around psychedelic drugs. (A topic an ex-stoner like myself would know something about.) Both trafficked in escapism, the sublime, and altered consciousness. Both required the consumption of fetishistic commodities dependent upon surplus wealth and leisure time. I was thinking about the premodernist ideal of pictures as windows to other realities, as transportation vehicles to other worlds, versus the modernist ideal of pictures as mirrors to this world. In an attempt to bring the two ideals together, I eventually started inlaying pills into my pictures in order to rearrange their use value. The way I saw it, all drugs had the potential to alter reality and it didn’t matter whether they were recreational or medicinal. To that end, I used everything from over-the-counter drugs, like aspirin, to more powerful psychoactive substances, like OxyContin. In these works, instead of traveling through the bloodstream to alter perception, these objects traveled through the eyeballs. It was a different route to the brain. A few years later, I started laminating pot leaves into the work because I wanted to insert objects with subcultural associations. The funny thing was that I really liked how the soft shape of the leaves contrasted with the hard, geometric shapes coming out of the pharmaceutical industry. That opened my work up to the shape of nature. Before too long, all kinds of images started accumulating into the work, including photo collage and, eventually, paint. I should mention that I preserved all this ephemeral material under tamperproof epoxy resin. It’s a material I’ve been using much of my life, having grown up in the surfing capital of America. This resin also had the added benefit of being an extremely seductive surface, which seemed to work perfectly with the content I was after.
DS You’ve mentioned the importance of earnestness in art: seeking a utopia, attempting transcendence, delivering a message to the world. But also how oftentimes this search doesn’t achieve very much. So being aware of that problem, that difficulty, do you still try to advance social goals with your art? Or is that a dead end?
FT I am cognizant of the inherent limitations of painting and act accordingly. One of the great things about a good picture is ambiguity; a painting hanging on a wall should be able to resonate with different meanings over time. The problem with pursuing social goals through painting is that the directness needed to convey a political agenda is often at odds with the ambiguity that pictures need to be worth looking at through the years. The other problem might be that the rarefied art world is too small a place for a message to resonate to the wider world. Maybe mediums that are cheaper and easier to copy and disseminate might be more effective at pushing forth a political agenda. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t insert social content into the work, it just means that I’m careful about the kind of content I let in. When I access the personal, I try to bracket it within a larger social context and then find analogies to that social context within art history. That’s the kind of content that my paintings are capable of handling. My long interest in dystopia, for instance, starts from my own personal history, which I then link to the unraveling of the ’60s and then to the wreckage of modernism.
Some of my paintings come out of my fascination with watching humans accidentally create hell in the pursuit of earthly heaven. For instance, in 1997 I made a picture entitled New Jerusalem that explores how American society imposes ideology onto landscape. The flowery outer edge of the work frames an oval center that depicts what looks like a peaceful little town at dusk. These homes, however, actually depict radical, oppositional ideologies. You have the Unabomber shack, next to the Aryan Nations compound, next to Thoreau’s Walden, next to the Branch Davidian compound, next to a Shaker meetinghouse, next to the Drop City commune, next to . . . well, you get the point. What looks like a cute, peaceful little town is really a town of suspicion and hate! A recent work entitled Burning Tower of Peace Towers continues in a similar vein. It’s a burning megamonument that’s composed of downloaded images of various peace monuments from throughout world history. It was inspired by my involvement with Rirkrit Tiravanija and Mark di Suvero’s Peace Tower project that was at the Whitney a few biennials ago. Their/our flaming monument crowns the top of my burning mega-monument.

Burning Tower of Peace Towers, 2007, photo collage, acrylic, gouache, and resin on wood panel, 30 × 24”.
DS You emphasize how important openness and freedom are for an artist. In Reality Hunger I take up that cudgel; I argue that copyright law stifles the freedom to take pieces of the world and use them in one’s art. As I wrote the book, the stifling often took the form of my having to count up the words I’d used from another writer, so I could figure out if I’d gone over an apparently arbitrary quotation limit. Of course in visual art, you don’t have to do that. But have legal concerns over ownership disrupted your work as a painter and installation artist? Have you ever had to call in the lawyers?
FT No lawyers yet, but I once received an angry letter from a bird artist who protested my use of his images. I think his images comprised 1/5000th of my final work, so I was probably under the legal limit, but who knows? Although artists do on occasion get sued for copyright infringement, most are too marginal to the culture to be worth the trouble. Yet when an artist who appropriates reaches cultural prominence, like say, Shepard Fairey or Jeff Koons, watch out!
The only time I’ve had legal trouble was in Paris in the mid-’90s. French customs were concerned that I was attempting to get American pharmaceuticals into the country without paying the proper import tariffs. It was eventually resolved, but I ended up having an opening with none of my art hanging in the gallery. That was fun. Some have questioned the general legality of my work, but it’s my position that when I get done with a piece, it’s just visual art and nothing more. And I don’t just mean that I transform objects merely by declaring them art, like Duchamp did. The objects I use, once encapsulated under resin, are physically transformed and can only be accessed visually.
DS Here’s a quote from you: “It is my ultimate aim to seduce and transport the viewer into the space of these pictures while simultaneously revealing the mechanics of that seduction.” That idea of “revealing the mechanics of that seduction”: it’s part of the core aesthetic you and I and a lot of other contemporary artists share. What do you think an artist gains by “revealing the mechanics” of a piece of art?
FT It’s important to have full disclosure, to be honest about what you’re trying to do and the history you are wrestling with, and to let the viewer in on it if you can. I was initially self-conscious about the limitations of art and burdened by the immensity of its history. (So burdened, in fact, that I quit making paintings for a number of years.) For me, making pictures was predicated on an enormous amount of doubt, so I initially made that doubt the subject of the work. Part of it had to do with the inherently manipulative nature of visual seduction and the problematic social structures that painting required in order to be seen. Since I’ve been at this for over 20 years, that doubt may not be the most important aspect about what I’m doing now, but it’s still there under a palimpsest of newer information. Then again, there are always new doubts.

Jan. 16, 2010, 2010, gouache and collage on printed watercolor paper, 8¼ × 10”.
DS You use a lot of collage techniques in your work. What sorts of implications and connotations come from incorporating outside materials into your art? What energy gets created by juxtaposing materials from seemingly disparate sources?
FT These disparate objects and images bring their own kind of social content to the work that can soup up the image beyond the formal. They help form a text behind the image that can build meaning in ways unimaginable when separated from each other. And some of those juxtapositions can also be quite funny! Ultimately, it’s all in the chemistry. Also, some of my viewers have a hard time figuring out which parts of my images are real things, photographs, other people’s illustrations, or my own painting. I love it when they can’t figure out the nature of what they are seeing! Art, after all, is all about perception.
Oh, and there’s something else: even though I’m basically an atheist, the way I use these materials might have something to do with my Catholic upbringing. These pictures don’t function all that differently from religious reliquaries. As with fragments of the “true cross” or the bones of saints, the viewer’s understanding of the “real” things embedded in my work is integral to their meaning. Also, to take the notion of my religious background a bit further, it does appear that my work toggles between the apocalyptic and the ecstatic. I guess there are some things you just can’t shake.
DS When you’re choosing objects to use in creating your collage works, are there any concerns about proprietary repercussions from the source, owner, or manufacturer of the items you’ll use in your art?
FT It’s funny, but my sense of individualism has been diminished by my use of collage. I increasingly see myself as merely a conductor to the collective voices of the various authors that combine into my images. This sense of collectivity doesn’t just stop with the combination of images—it extends to the various pictorial traditions, manifestos, and philosophies that I weave together. I want these various traditions, with their oppositional ideologies, to fight it out in my work. I’ve found that when I let the conceptualists brawl with the folk artists, they’re both made of similar stuff. Throw in some pop, Persian miniatures, surrealism, abstraction, Tibetan tangkas, and German Romanticism, and you’ve got yourself a real free-for-all! In that one respect, David, you and I are very different. You just wrote a manifesto, and I’m totally post-manifesto.

Datronic, 1998, Datura leaves, photo collage, acrylic, and resin on wood panel, 60 × 60”.
DS Folk artists down through the centuries apparently haven’t had any hesitation about borrowing and appropriating work by their predecessors. Why do you think that is? And why is our culture so far removed from that basic, free-assimilating folk-art aesthetic?
FT If you take the term folk art literally, it might mean people’s art. That implies a degree of collectivity in how the images are made and understood. Motifs keep coming up through various histories and cultures, and people keep remaking them because they mean something. That goes for me as well, as I’m also a re-maker of those same forms. I do it even when I don’t mean to, which leads me to suspect that these forms might be deeply encoded.
Within our consumer culture, there does seem to be this fiction about the rugged individualist creating unprecedented things, and this myth works really well with capitalism and the cult of celebrity. Perhaps, when the borrowing is too obvious, it can be seen as damaging to the image of the creator as genius. This, however, seems to be changing, what with the popularity of mash-ups, sampling, and other forms of cultural archeology. All authors steal and borrow, that’s the nature of culture. But of course, there’s nothing like being sued to shut somebody up!

I Saw Your Voice, 1994, hemp leaves, acrylic, and resin on wood panel, 72 × 54”.
DS What was your experience in collaborating with the writer Rick Moody? What gets produced by juxtaposing different art forms in a piece of art?
FT Let’s not forget you, Jonathan Lethem, and the various musicians I’ve worked with over the years, like Wilco, Laura Cantrell, Grand Duchy, The Melvins, and the Magnetic Fields. And those projects have resulted in everything from album covers, books, and light shows to T-shirts and web designs. Here’s the thing: I never know when I’m revealing too much about my work. (As a matter of fact, this whole interview might be too much information.) Like I said earlier, I believe in ambiguity, and I don’t want to be overly intrusive when it comes to the feedback loop between the object and the viewer. When I’m working on a publication, one of the ways I’ve tried to get around this is to ask writers to write whatever they want, and not necessarily about me, or my work. Maybe this juxtaposition is just a continuation of my aesthetics. Maybe what I initiate is just another form of collage, where, hopefully, some new meaning can occur between these disparate modes of expression.
This is not unlike the juxtapositions that happen to me daily in the studio. One of the great joys about being an artist is that I can listen to music through my ears, while making art with my hands. I get to consume and create culture simultaneously and sometimes you can really see it in the work. I’ve explored the idea of synesthesia in works like I Could See Your Voice or Echo, Wow and Flutter. I’ve titled work after songs, such as Expecting to Fly or Shiny Beast and explored my own personal history with music, such as the drawing Every Rock Band I Can Remember Seeing. One example of how music and literature have come together to influence my work can be found in 2003’s Airborne Event. I know it might sound a little crazy, but I was cross-referencing toxic chemical clouds, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and alien space abductions as all conspiring to capture the female figure floating in the night sky at the center of the picture. My reference to an “airborne toxic event” comes right out of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, while the references to alien space abduction probably come from me listening to the cosmic triumvirate of Sun Ra, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and George Clinton.
DS Harry Smith was an American archivist, ethnomusicologist, student of anthropology, record collector, experimental filmmaker, artist, bohemian, and mystic. In 1952 he put together his well-known Anthology of American Folk Music. In 2002, you said about him, “The fewer cumbersome things to get in your way, the fresher the mode of expression will be. Harry seems to have been one to not want to be too encumbered. There were laborious processes involved in his work, but there were also immediate ones that had to do with the moment he was in. I can relate to that. I use whatever I can, whatever works to make a thing.”
FT I’m glad you mentioned the Anthology of American Folk Music, as it’s been an enormous source of inspiration through the years, especially when I was dealing with some personal issues related to mortality. I channeled those songs about death, murder, hardship, sorrow, and cosmic weirdness into a bunch of pictures that I made between 2000 and 2005. A piece like Field Guides, which depicts a naked farmer being devoured by bugs while toiling in a field of mushrooms, probably wouldn’t have happened without those songs. But anyway, to get back to your question; I suppose I could laboriously paint facsimiles of images I find, but what would be the point? God knows my processes are laborious enough as it is. There are objects that go into my work that could never be better than the way I find them, so I use them exactly the way they are. They sing in the authentic voices of their creators and there’s something beautiful and real in that. But if it’s easier to paint something, I’ll do that too—whatever works. The great conceptual artist Douglas Huebler once said, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” While I appreciate the purity of his intentions, I’ve also added more than my fair share of objects to the world. Those objects, however, are primarily amalgamations of other objects that already existed before I found them.

Detail from Cadmium Phosphene Swirl, 2000, leaves, acrylic, photocollage, resin on wood panel, 60 × 60”.
DS Over the years you’ve assembled a sort of archive of materials to use in your collages. Interview magazine called it “an herbarium of sorts—of weeds, plants, pills, speed, insects, flowers, birds, and anatomical illustrations, carefully cut from books and digital scans.” Is there a collection system, or do you just bring home what strikes you as interesting and put it in the archive? And how much of the work of being a collage artist is simply the collecting of things?
FT I used to get most of my drugs from my doctor, who was inundated with free samples from Big Pharma. Every now and then I would go over to his office and fill garbage bags with the stuff and bring it all back to the studio. Then I would pop the pills out of their packaging, sorting and cataloguing them into various clear bottles. Now that I’m no longer using pills, my poor doctor is drowning in free drugs! Most of the other things I continue to use are by-products of my various hobbies and interests. The plants are all grown in my garden where they are eventually flattened by plant presses. Body parts come from lifestyle magazines. My use of field-guide imagery actually comes out of using those books when I’m in nature. I don’t know why it is, but I need to know the names of things in order to properly appreciate them and I’m like a Victorian when it comes to classification systems. The collection of raw material in my studio is organized according to genus, species, size, color—you name it. There are flat files filled with stacks of precut images, acetate binders filled with flattened leaves, neat rows of bottles filled with pills, and lots of painting supplies. When I combine these little chunks of information, it’s not unlike the way nature stacks up genes to build everything from viruses to humans. I tend to see each small bit like an individual cell, a piece of binary code, or a strand of DNA that accumulates, accrues, and grows into my images.
Having my wonky organization system in place allows me to use the objects more intuitively. Prior to assembling my work, I lay all this stuff out on every table in my studio, turn on the music, and then I let it rip. It’s not a cerebral process at all; it’s all gut instinct and intuitive responses to evanescent impulses. While I’m working, I make a huge mess and everything becomes completely disorganized. I change my mind, scrape things off, paint over stuff, and drill things out. When it’s all over and I’ve wrecked everything, I neaten things up. I eliminate all evidence of struggle, both in my work and in my studio. A few people have expressed surprise that I make up my stuff as I go along. They think I’ve figured out my pictures before I pick up an X-acto. That might have been the case when I initially started in the late ’80s, but intuition has become increasingly important over the years. In the studio, a lot of the thinking in my head gets replaced by thinking with my fingers.
DS You get artistic energy from the contradiction of the larger image being a composite of small images—superimposing the micro and macro on each other. What gets produced by that multiplicity of levels, of influences, of media, in a work of art?
FT Complexity has its own potential to create a multiplicity of meanings. It seems like the more information I pour into the work, the more varied the individual experience of the viewer. My primary intent is to create an engaging world that is so complex that viewers feel like they can’t ever get to the bottom of it. Hopefully, when a work is bottomless, you feel like you can look at it forever. Later, you can think about the meaning behind the images. For me, the melding of the conceptual and the visual has the potential to create a fully engaging mind/body experience. But if a viewer just wants to experience the work visually, that’s okay too. I’m not here to be anybody’s cop.


Fred Tomaselli

Fred Tomaselli, "Expecting to Fly", photocollage, leaves, acrylic, gouach, resin on wood panel, 2002.
The Brooklyn Rail visited Fred Tomaselli’s studio in the heart of Williamsburg on a cold November afternoon. Up one flight of stairs off Driggs Avenue, the studio is modest and efficient, like a serious medieval workshop. Three new paintings lined one wall. During our talk his assistant, Casey Loose, quietly glued photos of mushrooms on the foreground of a giant new work lying face up on saw horses. Around us the studio tables were crowded with sheets of cut-out collage items— sheets of plant leaves, photos of noses, eyes, human hands, birds, and flowers lay in separate piles. Fred showed us filing cabinets filled with bottles of pills and medicines ready for use.
Chris Martin (Rail): So, let me ask you about your connection with Brooklyn. I know you’ve been a part of the Williamsburg art scene for a long time.

Fred Tomaselli: Yeah, I moved here in 1985. I found and fixed up a little 325 dollar a month storefront in Greenpoint and started working…

Rail: Those was the days of Minor Injury gallery.

Tomaselli: Yeah, they were a lot of fun and right down the street.

Rail: You knew Joe Arnheim from California?

Tomaselli: I knew Joe long before he opened up Pierogi, when we both lived in downtown L.A. I had gone to Cal State and moved to downtown L.A. in 1982 with a BA in painting and drawing. I then promptly abandoned painting and drawing the next year and basically focused on installation and site specific work. I was doing shows with the likes of Charles Ray and Paul McCarthy and was very hooked in with the punk rock and art scene. I had basically given up on painting at that point because I couldn’t figure out a way to get out from under its burden of history. I guess I just didn’t really know what paintings could do. I had a crisis of faith and I even gave up art altogether to put out punk rock magazines for a while.

Rail: So what brought you back to making specific objects again?

Tomaselli: I just ran out of things to say with the installation work. I was making low-tech installations that were accumulations of found objects and electronics that referred to theme parks…

Rail: Theme parks, you mean like Disneyland?

Tomaselli: Yeah, I grew up next to Disneyland.

Rail: What a lucky kid. So was that a formative influence?

Tomaselli: Yeah. Going to Disneyland and then happening to go into a Bruce Nauman retrospective is a good indication of the dichotomous level of my formative growth [laugh]. Also, LSD had been a formative influence on how I saw the world. I was making these works based on theme parks with light trapping corridors that expanded into larger rooms. The subject of the works were their own artificiality and the mechanics of perceptual modification.

Rail: Which are very much themes in your paintings now.

Tomaselli: Yeah, what happened was the installation format seemed to have run its course and my work kept getting flatter and flatter, and I started thinking about the pre-modernist ideal of painting as a window into an alternate reality. I started seeing lots of comparisons between the utopian aspects of art and the utopian counter culture and also seeing the dystopic side as well. I felt that painting could be both a window and a mirror to the world. It’s important to remember that I entered the art world as it was imploding into post-modernism and I was coming into the counter culture as it was collapsing into disco and cocaine. There was all this failure and loss of idealism and I was interested in digging through the rubble to see if there was anything worth keeping.

Rail: The art world was ruled by cynicism. Painting was discredited. You were coming in investigating utopias when everything seemed hopeless…

Tomaselli: Yeah, It didn’t go well at first, which made me feel like I was on the right path. I really was pretty alienated from the art world discourse— it seemed like so much arid theory for disembodied heads that had nothing to do with life. I didn’t want to make art if it had to be like that.

Rail: When did you first collage actual drugs into your paintings?

Tomaselli: In 1989. It came out of my life experiences. My friends were dying of AIDS and taking masses of pills. I mean at the time I started making this work, drugs had morphed from agents of enlightenment and pleasure, to tools of survival. There was the rubble of the visionary quest that devolved into Studio 54 while the terror and enslavement of the crack epidemic raged through this crime ridden city… I was trying to figure out if there was anything worth saving in all of that. That’s sort of what got me into doing it and part of it was self consciously searching for a new way to make painting. I wasn’t disregarding my own doubts but I was going ahead and doing it anyway. I was trying to put the contents of my personal life into the work in an attempt to talk about something bigger.

Rail: You were wrestling with doubts about making paintings at all?

Tomaselli: Right, These weren’t paintings originally. They were assemblages of objects that were made to look like paintings. I’ve only recently been comfortable with talking about myself as a painter.
Fred Tomaselli in his studio, photo by Carey Kirkella.
Rail: So you set down the pills or whatever— fix them to the wood support— and seal them in place with resin. You have built this complex system of collage. Tell me how this evolved.

Tomaselli: I started originally with aspirin, Sudafed, stuff like that— then I needed to throw some subcultural drugs in there because I think it’s all about the same thing; relief from pain, pleasure, desire, altered consciousness… So I started to put pot leaves from my garden into my work and that opened up the dreaded nature/culture dialogue. The leaves put the shape of nature into the work, which softened things up in the context of the hard, manufactured geometries of the pills. That lead to the addition of the collage elements—cutting out pictures of bugs, birds, flowers and body parts from magazines and field guides. I then encased all this ephemeral material in resin.

Rail: You’ve used real bugs as well.

Tomaselli: Yeah, that started when I was living upstate one summer in Sam Messer’s place and there were so many bugs! All these tent caterpillars were hatching into moths that landed into my work. I was pouring all these resin pieces in this barn and no matter what I did, they’d fucking land, stick and die in it. So I decided to go with it and work outside. I’d hang these huge lights on the pieces at night and create these bug storms— when they were at their peak I’d pour resin down on the work and they would stick and die in these random formations. It was a collision of nature and technology, letting chaos and chance put them where they were. I thought of them as portraits of the atmosphere— as a basis to make landscapes with the real bugs as actors in the work. The event would last about an hour, but afterwards, I would work for months to make them beautiful.

Rail: You first became acknowledged as the guy that puts real drugs in his paintings. Did you ever find yourself in trouble for exhibiting marijuana and drugs?

Tomaselli: Not really. This isn’t an attempt on my part to be transgressive or to push anybody’s buttons. This is work that comes out of the way my life is. If I can make a life in the anonymity of the art world, that’s all right with me. In a funny way, I’ve destroyed the drugs, or at least rearranged their use value. In my work, they travel to the brain and alter consciousness through the eyes.

Rail: There were no legal problems?

Tomaselli: I’ve had some issues come up. Once, I think 1994, the works were temporarily arrested in Paris by customs but were eventually released from the contraband prison. It was funny—I had an opening with no art in it. I showed at a gallery that was associated with a lot of conceptual art, so showing an empty gallery was initially interpreted as a Yves Klein style statement of the futility of art making. I was saying, "No, I make paintings but they’re locked up in customs," and they were like, "That is so boring, you are so boring." [laughter]. There have been a few institutions that have tried to purchase my work that encountered a board of directors that felt they could get in trouble for it. By the way, I don’t consider it my right to have my work purchased by museums—if they think it’s too controversial, that’s fine...

Rail: Most artists of our generation grew up surrounded by drugs. I think many of us were changed by our use of psychedelics. For me they helped open up a visionary world— a spiritual dimension. That was true of so many friends and contemporaries, and yet few of us put it directly into the work. I am really struck by how you made it the subject and content of your painting, which seems such an obvious but wonderful thing to do.

Tomaselli: Well, it came to me from a lot of different angles. It is one of the great repressed discourses in contemporary culture— this massive effect of psychedelic drugs on consciousness and its tremendous effect on American culture. But it’s not talked about all that much.

Rail: Not only are you putting actual drugs into the paintings, but there’s a conscious depiction of psychedelic vision.

Tomaselli: More and more so— yes. It’s a complex fusion. I think of my work as truly hybrid in that it’s made of photographs, objects and paint cohabiting different levels within the same picture plane. It’s hard to tell what’s what.

Rail: A physical hybrid of materials?

Tomaselli: It’s a physical hybrid and a historical and stylistic hybrid. I’m borrowing from lots of different cultures and traditions, many of which are enemies to one another. I get a lot of juice from Asian art, German Romanticism, Pop, Conceptualism and so on and so forth, but also, and very importantly, my brain has been hybridized by the use of hallucinogenic drugs. [laughter] These works reflect a mind that has been conceptually, psychologically and perceptually altered from the use of these substances. I consider myself to be a hybrid creature. LSD has colonized part of my DNA and I’m trying to put that into my work.

Rail: Are you talking about an openness to a certain kind of visual phenomenon? An openness to psychological and art historical influences?

Tomaselli: Well, initially my work was an illustrative manifestation of conceptual concerns that ended up looking quite minimalist. One of the ways I’ve tried to push it is through the addition of decorative intensity. I never really throw anything away, I just keep adding things. There’s been so much information piled up on itself that it has become hallucinogenic. My personal doors of perception have been opened on occasion to really allow the full throttle world to enter my psyche. My work is the culmination of this multiplicity of information— all the histories that I’ve been accruing.

Rail: Do you still use hallucinogenic drugs?

Tomaselli: I haven’t taken LSD since 1980. I think sometimes you need to remove yourself from intense experience and get some distance to really use it as subject matter. So my heroic doses of LSD are long over.

Rail: Well, you must be completely concentrated and alert to make these paintings— they are very carefully made, amazingly labor intensive objects. How did you come to work on this tiny scale? This exploration of minute detail emerged with a number of artists in the 1990s, I’m always impressed with that kind of skill— you and people like James Siena using these tiny brushes.

Tomaselli: Well, I met James in L.A. before I moved to New York and he got me a job working with him at a frame shop. At the time there was this simple notion that concept and execution were mutually exclusive activities, that great artist’s thought great thoughts and had them fabricated by underlings. James and I were these low end workers of the art world and I guess we were fairly suspicious of this dismissal of craft. I felt that the process of making art was integral to it’s meaning and in order to see the art I wanted to see, I had to make it.

Rail: I heard James describe himself as just a humble craftsman.

Tomaselli: Oh, he’s much more than that.

Rail: I know he is. But he’ll talk about how he wants to be like this anonymous guy putting tiles in the Taj Mahal. You both have developed this high level of detail and craft. Ultimately it seems to be about a loving kind of attention— your commitment to your own vision. Does that connect with psychedelic vision? Is it a William Blake thing that God is in the details?

Tomaselli: The interesting thing about psychedelics and pop culture is that psychedelia did open me to investigate a neglected art history though the back door of its own self-generated kitsch. It allowed me to really get turned on to everything from Asian art to William Blake. It tweaked my vision to deep structure. I think one part is the psychedelic experience and one part is the world that psychedelic drugs directed me towards.

Rail: Let me ask you about these new paintings here in the studio. These figures are composed of hundreds of collaged birds and body parts and everything.
Tomaselli: I began working with these Arcimboldo-inspired figures for the show with Harry Smith and Philip Taaffe and now it’s just taken over my work. I’m kind of finding my way back to figurative-narrative art, which is a place I rarely visit.

Rail: This image of a falling man above these hands?

Tomaselli: It’s a mosh pit situation— transcendence— oblivion— the modern sublime.

Rail: So there’s a narrative there?

Tomaselli: I hope I’m not telling stories the way a writer would. I think art should be somewhat ambiguous because an easily digested narrative gets exhausted too quickly to look at every day. But whenever you put in a figure, people start to read narrative into it—at least that’s what I’m finding out.

Rail: Well, these paintings look terrific.

Tomaselli: Thanks. But you know, I think its just getting closer and closer to how the world feels being processed through my personal nervous system. I’m feeling less and less articulate about the specificity of the work. I guess that all the initial conceptual strategies are still somewhere in the work, but they mean less and less to me. I’m not to sure what these new works mean, but I’m doing them anyway. I probably shouldn’t even consider myself a conceptual artist anymore. I make pictures— that’s it.

Rail: That sounds very healthy. I used to think of your earlier work as more abstract. Does this distinction between abstraction and figuration mean anything to you?

Tomaselli: It never has had any meaning for me. I’ve always put at least one figurative work into every show and I always mix it up with landscape and abstractions. I’ve looked at these shows as a disassemble figureground, micro-macro universe. This is the first time where I’ve embarked on a body of work that has a unified formal common denominator. I hope it’s not to boring or repetitious. They come out of my love of Renaissance Painting, the work of Blake and especially Tibetan Tongas with their preoccupation with the Corporeal aspects of the body— with decay and death. I live with an 18th century Tonga and it’s probably unduly influencing me, or maybe it’s my obsession with Appalachian Death Ballads, I don’t know.

Rail: Are you involved with Tibetan Buddhism as a practice?

Tomaselli: No, I’m like everyone else in the art world— I’m Buddhist friendly, which is such a wimpy position. I’m not like Alex Gray who is totally committed to it. I’m very sympathetic to the Tibetan view of the cosmos but I’m just not ready to throw my allegiances to any one particular ideology. I’m afraid of becoming too sure of things— too orthodox.

Rail: I think that’s important to separate spirituality from religion. They sometimes coincide but they often don’t.

Tomaselli: I’m uncomfortable with the term "spirituality." It seems like it’s a catch-all for whatever people want their feel good stuff to be. So much of it is so narcissistic and being from New Age California, I have a slightly jaundiced view of that. My work is based on a certain amount of skepticism. I can’t seem to get behind any particular program.

Rail: So let me ask about Alex Grey. Your paintings are reproduced along with his in this wonderful new book about Psychedelics and Buddhism, Zig Zag Zen. Do you have a dialogue with him about psychedelics?

Tomaselli: Yeah, me and him are friends. I’m a huge fan of his work and I think we have some parallels and a good dialogue between us.

Rail: But he is so earnest about his spirituality. There doesn’t seem to be any skepticism.

Tomaselli: Alex is a true believer. Alex believes that psychedelics are a short cut for humans to complete their spiritual evolution on earth. But he’s not some proselytizer— he’s quite tolerant about different beliefs and pathologies. He is a true believer where I am a sympathizer. We’ve both come through these psychedelic experiences that have influenced our work and we’ve both looked at a lot of Tibetan art and other similar works.

Rail: Fred, I can remember seeing paintings of yours which had a sunset landscape underneath this psychedelic patterning of pills. I thought that some of those paintings were the best visual illustration of actual psychedelic vision. They had that sense of looking at the landscape and seeing a dancing tracery on top. With certain psychedelics that’s very much what happens— there is this overlay of a pulsing patterning on whatever it is your seeing. Were you conscious that your paintings were illustrations of that?

Tomaselli: Well, I was. I think that the first time I really saw the world through an actual scrim of other information was under the influence. It was later that I began to see nature itself through a scrim of politics and different ideologies. You know, the history of the American landscape was this imposition of utopian belief on nature and the perception of nature is always deformed by ideology. I started thinking about nature in terms of a vision of psychedelia but also in terms of the history of ideologies and this buzzing electronic scrim of politics, chemicals and pollution. Nature isn’t pure and I wanted to access something that was real as opposed to something that was idealized. I want to get to where nature is in my head. On one hand, it can contain a visionary experience but it’s also this social political construct that is sick and cranky.

Rail: This really reminds me of Frank Moore, whose landscape paintings of Niagara Falls and Yosemite National Park addressed those same issues. Did you know Frank’s paintings?

Tomaselli: Oh yes, we were friends and had a lot in common.

Rail: Wonderful! You know we were old friends, we went to college together— he was a lovely man. Frank really investigated the science and politics of that whole natural world construct…

Tomaselli: Frank and I talked a lot about that stuff. He was a special artist and I miss him dearly. We spoke a lot about the dichotomy of nature and culture and how they deformed one another and how this deforming was the closest to nature you could get. But we loved it, even though we knew it was a mutant. Part of the way me and Frank reconciled our love of the mutant is through gardening— the cultural shaping of nature. You get to be a God, weeding out the things you don’t want and accentuating the things you want to see or eat.
The ideal of gardening has positive connotations but the idea behind bioengineering has bad ones. That dichotomy between where it was good and where it was bad was the place we both found interesting.

Rail: We’ve talked about Frank Moore, Alex Grey, James Siena. Are there other artists that you feel particularly close to among your contemporaries?

Tomaselli: I think Amy Sillman is a really brave painter who takes all kinds of risks and I’ve learned a lot from watching her pay attention to her intuition. Her work is funny, sad and beautiful. I think Philip Taaffe is an artist who has been making good art for a long time. He’s never been afraid to access the multiplicity of patterns in nature and ancient cultures. I admire these artists for their audacity in trying to access a tough minded and intelligent beauty in a cynical world.

Rail: Now that you’ve become well known for making paintings, do you ever think about doing installations again? The giant painting you showed at the Whitney Museum in 1999 seemed so vast and the scale was so overwhelming, that it brought to mind the idea of an installation. It felt like a kind of surround experience.

Tomaselli: That’s funny, because I was initially approached by Eugenie Tsai of the Whitney to do a site specific installation. She asked that same question of me because she had seen my early installations at PS1, Artists Space and White Columns. I said I’d think about it and then had this idea to do a walk in painting that would contain the world alluded to in the picture. The more I started planning this, the more I started thinking that it was a gimmick. I felt that attempting to make a convincing, intense painting and trying to overwhelm the viewer through scale— that this was a challenge in and of itself. So I went back to Eugenie and said I want to do this big giant painting but without an installation element. She said go ahead, and she was really nice about it, but it did get me to thinking about how I pretty much have left installation behind. I now have this ongoing dialogue with making flat visual art. I’ve limited myself to two dimensions, but within that I can do anything I want. To be honest, installation seems quite limited in comparison. My last installation is still on view at the hall of science in Flushing Meadows, Queens. It's an architectural, site specific public art project called "10 Kilometer Radius." I felt like that was a good way to end it.

Rail: So you are a painter.

Tomaselli: I guess I became a painter. Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s what I am now.

Fred Tomaselli

With touchstones like exotic birds and psychotropic drugs, artist Fred Tomaselli’s intricate collage paintings open the mind to new ways of seeing.

Fred Tomaselli is feeling a little “blitzed” today, as he puts it, a series of midnight epiphanies about his backyard garden having triggered a stream-of-consciousness mental ballet that kept him from getting any shut-eye. So now he’s battling the effects of insomnia the way countless people the world over do: with a cocktail of caffeine and nicotine. Sitting in Kasia’s, a Polish diner near his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio, Tomaselli is slouched in his chair under lace-curtained windows, drinking coffee and chewing nicotine gum. Lots of it. “I’m trying to get my head right, trying to correct my brain chemistry with more chemistry,” he says.
The impact of chemical substances—be they medically necessary or purely recreational—on gray matter has been a recurring theme of Tomaselli’s art for the past 20 years. He has meticulously assembled collages using pharmaceuticals of every size, shape and color encased under layers of resin; he has made what he terms “chemical celestial portraits in inner space and outer space,” using friends’ and loved ones’ preferred drugs, from hallucinogens to decongestants, to depict the stars in the night sky on the days they were born. He has even tackled cigarettes, which the laid-back Tomaselli, still teenager thin at 53 and habitually in sneakers, asserts were harder for him to kick than any of the illicit drugs in his past. For a piece called Dermal Delivery or How I Quit Smoking, he ripped off his daily nicotine patches and glued them into what he describes as a “flesh grid quilt.” “It was sort of a performative work insofar as I was going crazy, I was trying to quit smoking, and I was making my work out of that process,” he says of the three-month ordeal. “Then I ended up starting to smoke at the opening.”
Of course, last night he could have popped an Ambien, or even just a half, which he calls “a velvet hammer—it totally puts me out,” but, he explains, he’d taken the sleeping pill two nights in a row while visiting friends upstate and didn’t want to make it three. Articulate despite his claims to the contrary—“I’m actually pretty smart when you get to know me,” he pleads—he then launches into an exegesis of sleep studies, some of which have found that certain subjects, though seemingly asleep, had the brain activity of wide-awake people. Even weirder, in the morning they reported that they’d had a great night’s rest and felt terrific. “But their brains weren’t shutting down,” Tomaselli says. “They weren’t going into REM sleep.”
Other studies have indicated that Ambien “doesn’t make you sleep so much as it makes you forget that you were awake, that it’s an amnesiac.
“The idea is that sleep might just be a perceptual issue, that it’s as much about perception as it is about actual sleep,” he continues. “I think it’s creepy. And it’s fascinating. Well, I’m taking it tonight, for sure,” he adds with a laugh. At which point, his brain now heavily lubricated, his bespectacled eyes looking a little more focused, he segues smoothly into his work. Perception, he argues, is also at the heart of art, or at least “all good art, all interesting art.”
To be sure, Tomaselli, from the dawn of his practice, has explored the murky zone between artifice and reality. His early installations were immersive environments meant to be experienced by the viewer. In Cubic Sky (1987), still hanging in his studio, modular facsimiles of the constellations descend from the ceiling in a cluster and glow with blue stars when the room is darkened. “When I was making this, I was thinking that looking up at the heavens was man’s oldest way of turning his back on the world,” Tomaselli says. “I also got to containerize the infinite, which was funny to me. I also kind of got to be God; I got to create this universe.” His collage paintings, also known as hybrids, are similarly sensory. Brightly colored mash-ups of teeny-tiny pictures cut from magazines and books—a kaleidoscope of butterflies or snakes, for example, or human hands, eyes or mouths—and paint, the hybrids also incorporate organic material. Some are eerily calm, while others practically explode from the surface. Tomaselli’s latest endeavors—hallucinatory treatments of front pages from The New York Times—are bold juxtapositions of cold reality and formal abstraction, his way of “talking back at the news.”
Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum, where Tomaselli will be the subject of a survey show opening August 1 as well as the recipient of this year’s Aspen Award for Art, notes that his collage Red Butte appears, from a distance, to be a painting of a grassy field against a desert mountain. “When you look closely, you can see it’s marijuana leaves,” Zuckerman Jacobson says. “It’s almost like an opportunity to make sure the viewer’s paying attention, and that’s one of my favorite things about contemporary art: It gives us another perspective on our life and on our reality. I think Fred is saying, ‘Look, are you paying attention? You know, wake up.’”
It’s all too easy to pinpoint the likely genesis of Tomaselli’s fascination with visual trickery: He grew up in the shadow of Disneyland. An oft-told tale of his youth is that the first time he saw an actual waterfall in nature, he kept searching for the hidden plumbing.
The eldest of six children of Swiss and Italian immigrant parents, Tomaselli was raised in the working-class flats of Santa Ana, California, where men toiled not in the glamour world of Hollywood but primarily in blue-collar aerospace jobs. He was an altar boy—“but I was never molested,” he says, “unless I’ve repressed it”—and a born tinkerer, forever toying with go-karts and such in the garage. When he decided to go to art school, he recalls, “my father took me aside and said, ‘This is really stupid. You’re okay, but you’re not great.’ I was just like, ‘Yeah, well, f--- you.’ It wasn’t crushing. I think it strengthened my resolve.” Though his mom was a “Sunday painter,” he adds, “in my background there just wasn’t a sense that you could have a life as an artist.” His parents eventually changed their minds, but Tomaselli put himself through California State University, Fullerton, by working as an auto mechanic. After graduating, he subsisted as a handyman for a slumlord while living in a seedy section of downtown L.A. He also found work sheetrocking and plastering, and later as a framer.
Though his degree was in painting and drawing, Tomaselli quickly abandoned canvases for installations, incorporating the skills he picked up from his survival jobs. “First of all, [my painting] wasn’t any good, and second, I had real ideological issues with the whole bourgeois kind of context that paintings needed—I was a punk rocker,” he says. “The small amount of people that control the discourse around painting—I thought that the whole museum world was just a bunch of phonies, and I didn’t really want to have anything to do with it. I guess I did installations, in a funny way, because they couldn’t be commodified. I sort of wanted to not participate in the market around art.”
Instead of looking for a commercial gallery, Tomaselli displayed his pieces at alternative, nonprofit spaces in L.A. In 1985 he’d lost his girlfriend, his job and his lease. He decided “if I’m gonna move, I’m gonna move big.” So he came to New York, which he’d never even visited. With rents in the East Village already out of his league, he ended up in Williamsburg, long before Manhattan hipsters were moving to the Polish-Italian, grimy neighborhood in droves, before you could even buy a New York Times there. “I couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong with it, but everybody thought it was a really bad idea,” Tomaselli remembers. “They were like, ‘How did you miss Manhattan by two miles?’ and ‘You’ll never get anybody to come over to your studio. You’re going to be one loser artist.’”
Of course, the naysayers were quickly proved wrong. Tom Finkelpearl, then a curator at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, was one of the first to head out to see Tomaselli. The work in the studio was, recalls Finkelpearl, now the executive director of the Queens Museum of Art, “very kind of funky, handmade, kinetic—like a sea of little speakers with sand in them so they’d make these noises and the sand would kind of jump. There was a psychedelic dimension, but more experiential than just visual.”
Finkelpearl gave Tomaselli a show at P.S. 1. That led to Connie Butler signing him for a project show at Artists Space. “I loved the work,” says Butler, now chief curator of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art. “It was intensely obsessive and crazy and very funny also, very smart. They were very low-tech, like some crazy special-effects guy had made them. But they were always sort of poetic and had an elegance, and I think the paintings now are extremely elegant and beautiful.”
All the while, Tomaselli had remained a Sunday painter like his mom, making “conservative, plein-air watercolors, like landscapes and stuff. And I never showed them to anybody,” he says. But in the late Eighties the two seemingly disparate practices merged. “The [installation] work I was doing at that time was using the tropes of theme parks to discuss the way reality is dislocated in our culture, while also trying to give a sort of escapist experience,” he says. “I was interested in the culture of escapism because it seemed apropos to the state we were in at the time, with Ronald Reagan being president and all. It just seemed like the ascendancy of the unreal. Then I started to think later about the premodern ideals around painting, a window to another reality, and painting as a vehicle of transportation to take you to other places. I started to realize that paintings were other worlds, that it was almost a more direct way of talking about what I wanted to talk about, and so I ended up making pictures.”
They began, he says, as “ironic paintings”: “I don’t embrace irony, but I do think it’s a pre-existing condition; we manage it as best we can.” Over time, though, he has come to accept them as paintings, pure and simple. In his most recent work, he has eased up on the coatings of resin, which had been one of his signature elements, in favor of paint right on the surface. His studio, which he sheetrocked himself, has recently been emptied out for an exhibition, and Tomaselli has started fresh with a seven-by-seven-foot panel. A giant bird’s eye is sketched out, covering most of the space, and his assistant has begun filling in paint colors mapped out by Tomaselli. With 20 concentric circles, like a target, it lies somewhere between abstraction and representation. Tomaselli goes to a stack of shallow drawers—his archives—and leafs through a sheaf of collage elements, flowers and eyeballs and such, all of which have been scanned into a computer and printed onto archival paper, readying them to be cut with an X-Acto knife and individually glued onto the collages. The digital files enable Tomaselli to play with size and hue. In another drawer he keeps his drug stash, though he hasn’t used actual pills in a while. “It was becoming something that was known about my work, and I thought I would try to keep the viewer a little off balance, so now I just use colors or dots and dashes, and they can become whatever the viewer wants,” he says. “They can become placebos if they know my work, or they can just become pattern.” The leaves that find their way into the paintings come from Tomaselli’s own garden, with the exception of marijuana, as he suspects a particular neighbor might not approve.
“Fred’s obsessive,” says novelist Rick Moody, a close friend since the two collaborated on a book for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2000. “I mean, in terms of his work, he’s completely monomaniacal, and those works are hugely, hugely labor-intensive. There’s so much precision about him and so much method that’s approached with such vigor. It was a revelation, but almost an obvious revelation, to find out that he was Swiss, because he has that kind of Swiss attention to detail. He’s like a watchmaker.”
Tomaselli admits he is drawn to the mindless part of making his collages. “I really like the busywork,” he says. “It’s sort of a weird, brain-dead kind of work. It opens up my mind and allows a lot of free associations.”
Writer Jonathan Lethem, another close friend, recalls being stunned by the drawers full of lilliputian images. “Suddenly I saw him in a very charming light as a super-overgrown stamp collector, or like the way kids learn to make collage, not as a postmodern gesture but because it’s really fun to cut things out of magazines,” says Lethem, a fellow collector. “That part of him is really alive that just really loves the world, almost the way the first thing a toddler wants to do when they find a penny is put it in their mouth and taste it. I think Fred’s reaction to stuff is rooted in that kind of intense, tangible fascination.”
Over time Tomaselli has incorporated most of his hobbies and interests into his art. The most obvious, of course, was his participation in the Seventies drug culture, before, he says, “the whole hippie transcendentalist thing fell apart [and] turned into disco and cocaine.” Critics have frequently labeled his art psychedelic, but Tomaselli says he’s not trying to re-create an acid trip. Rather, his drug history informs his work through an openness to other realities. There’s also the occasional wink, as in his use of blotter acid for his Times series. The first one began with Tomaselli doodling on the front-page picture of Bernie Ebbers on the day the disgraced WorldCom CEO was convicted of fraud. “Even though he was a wretched man, I was touched by him holding hands with his wife,” Tomaselli says, adding that it reminded him of the expulsion of Adam and Eve. “This sort of Paradise Lost seemed to have this relationship to paradises involved with taking LSD.”
A dedicated naturalist and outdoorsman, Tomaselli is a bird-watcher, a fly fisherman, a surfer and a kayaker. “I kind of have a Victorian sensibility—I don’t understand stuff until I can classify it and name it,” he says. “These things were just lying around—the drugs, the field guides—and eventually they became fodder to my work.” After years of birding, for example, he had an epiphany about the birds’ rich aesthetic possibilities. “There was just this huge variety,” he says. “It reminded me of the parallel reality when I dropped acid. This thing was just out there this whole time, and I never paid attention to it. And once I started, it seemed very magical to me.”
Tomaselli bonded with Moody and Lethem over their creative approaches but also over music. The three are members of the Brooklyn Record Club, a group of about 14 admitted music geeks who meet quarterly, usually at Tomaselli’s house. After dinner prepared by Tomaselli’s wife, Laura Miller (“a stunningly good cook,” Moody says), each member plays two songs, which everyone then discusses. MP3s are “slightly frowned upon,” Moody explains. “To be really cool at Record Club, you have to bring vinyl.”
Tomaselli and Miller’s Brooklyn set is decidedly arty, and their 11-year-old son, Desi, plays piano well and certainly knows his way around an easel. But perhaps in an early fit of filial rebellion, “he just really, really loves money more than anything,” Tomaselli says, somewhat chagrined. “I bought him some stocks one year for his birthday, and he reads the financial section of the Times every morning to see how the stocks are doing. The joke around our house is that he’s the cutest little Republican we know—he’s into guns, he’s into money, and he’s into, like, Nascar.” But there may be an upside: “He could take care of us in our old age because we know s--- about money.”
Tomaselli himself is still conflicted about the commercial aspects of being a successful artist, though he has tried to rationalize that, since his paintings are in many ways about desire, it’s appropriate that they be desired. “But I still have some issues with that, especially in the last 10 years or so,” he says. “The dialogue in the art world has been way tilted towards money and status and celebrity. Now nobody’s selling any art, and a lot of nice people are going to go out of business. But there are a lot of a--holes that are going to leave too, so it’s a blessing in disguise.”
While he says works in a spring show at White Cube in London are moving respectably, he admits he’d grown accustomed to his shows selling out before even opening and to his primary gallery, James Cohan in New York’s Chelsea, having a waiting list of collectors. “Well, they can name their price now,” he says with a laugh. “They also get a chance to kick the tires and to, like, grouse a little bit, you know, ‘I couldn’t get one when things were good, now you’re coming at me on your hands and knees, huh? I want you to dance first.’”
Joking aside, Tomaselli seems to have a healthy ego when it comes to the vagaries of the art market. When one collector recently admired a Tomaselli that was not available and inquired whether he would make another in the same vein, the artist’s answer was a simple no, he doesn’t make work to order. Still, Tomaselli wasn’t offended that the collector rejected other paintings that were for sale. “He’s a guy with a lot of money. That doesn’t make him an arbiter of what’s good and what’s bad,” Tomaselli says.
Tomaselli is more concerned about the Aspen exhibition, which will travel to the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, then the Brooklyn Museum, and about what he’s going to show in the Sydney biennial next May. “I’m freaking out,” he says. “I have nothing. Starting from scratch again.” And he is determined to kick his five-year nicotine-gum habit. When his supply runs out, he’s going to try Chantix, a prescription drug that blocks nicotine from the brain’s receptors, rendering it ineffectual.
Any side effects? “Suicide,” Tomaselli deadpans before adding, “I don’t think I’m going to commit suicide. I’m very optimistic now that Obama’s president, and I’ve got an 11-year-old kid. Things are looking good.”

Philip Taaffe and Fred Tomaselli in
Conversation, with Raymond Foye and Rani Singh

The following interview was conducted over the course of two sessions, at Philip Taaffe’s studio on July 16th, and at Fred Tomaselli’s studio on July 22nd, 2002.
All images by Fred Tomaselli are courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York.

Harry Smith, Untitled, (circa 1978). Oil and acrylic
on board, approximately 26 x 26 inches (67 x 67 cm)

Robert Fludd: The hand of God tuning the
Celestial Monochord, 1618. Reproduced by
Smith on the cover of his 1952 "Anthology
of American Folk Music."

Tlingit/Chilcat blanket pattern board,
Northwest Coast, late 19th century

Jordan Belson, Caravan,
film stills, 1951
Foye: When Harry was making films there was a real demarcation between the actual making of the film and the assembling of the materials, and sometimes he had to let things sit for a long time. In Mahagonny, he left the material alone for eight years. What I’ve seen of the working process in your studio, and in Fred’s as well, is very similar to how Harry worked, in painting as well as film: the collage elements which he spent months gathering and cutting and organizing; the way multiple layers are superimposed in composing the painting; even the formal design principles that underlie the compositions are developed in much the same way.
Tomaselli Like a lot of my favorite artists, Harry seems to have been able to pull lots of different information into a complex conversation that becomes visually manifest in his work. The complexities behind the images that result are the type that are endlessly deep and revealing.
Taaffe: It's also because of the unifying force of the abstract intelligence at work. In all of Harry’s works that I’ve seen, there are many incidents, many little episodes that one can focus on. However, beyond that, there's always a real unifying intelligence. And as a painter, that is what you are always obliquely aiming towards somehow: to make visually manifest that sense of a unifying intelligence—the grand synthesis. In spite of the manifold nature of its material concerns, or the amount of detail and complexity involved, the ultimate experience of a work need to come across as a singular expression. I believe this is an important guiding principle for an artist..
Tomaselli: Most of my favorite art hits the viewer in some non-intellectual, intuitive kind of way. You can lose yourself in the work. It's a singular moment, but the complexity is there for later. You get more information the longer you look at it. In different times it might mean different things. You allow these other kinds of information to sit there and be available for another day...
Taaffe: But don't you think that what you're describing is very much a painting thing? This is what painting does. We take that for granted, but I think that's what painting really does better than anything else.
Tomaselli: You have to live with paintings to know how they can resonate over time, to unfold into a really big conversation.
Taaffe: They keep expanding, growing before your very eyes...
Philip Taaffe, Water Music, (2002). Mixed media
on canvas, 30 1/2 x 40 1/2 inches (78 x 103 cm)
Tomaselli: The good ones do, and with different levels of information that you perhaps didn't recognize initially.
Taaffe: And it leads you new ideas about life as well. It leads you new understandings of what it means to be alive in this world.
Foye: But that’s not just intellectual, it’s very much about the carefully made thing which is often startling and beautiful in all the complexity and difficulty of what beauty is, that makes the work successful. But if it doesn't look good, it doesn't matter how interesting the process may be that went it making it, it's not going to get off the ground, right?

Harry Smith, Aleph Drawings, c. 1975
Taaffe: Well, it'll be on the wall.
Tomaselli: Whether you like it or not.
Foye: Otherwise you get into what a lot of psychedelic art, or drug art, is. It's just a mundane description that leaves nothing for the viewer to do. What I think is important in the psychedelic experience is not the experience itself, but what you do with that experience later, how you make use of the experience in the world.
Taaffe: Yes, I think what you are referring to is the transformed, or transforming image, which is the opposite of illustrating. It's about letting the viewer discover things, it's not putting everything out there in a very demonstrative way. It's subtler, softer. It lets your mind and your eyes inside, lets you penetrate, so you can inhabit the pictorial space.
Tomaselli: My art is informed to a certain degree by psychedelic art but it's in concert with many different ideas and 'isms,' so I don't really consider myself a psychedelic artist per say.
Taaffe: Lately I've been wondering what Harry would have made of the internet? I wonder how he would have dealt with this whole situation?
Foye: I’ve often thought of that, because what Harry did manually for decades is taking place now, digitally, almost with the press of a button. Methodologically, Harry kind of invented the internet.
Singh: I remember at one point showing him a computer-generated program involving colored fractal geometry, and he was amazed. He said years ago you wouldn’t believe all the time he had to spend working out all those permutations manually.
Tomaselli: What do you mean he invented the internet?

Smith (age 15) recording Lummi
tribe, Bellingham, Washington, 1938
Foye: Linkage, hypertexts, the ways in which diverse subjects are connected; taking one set of experiences and transferring or applying them to another.
Taaffe: It seems to me that Harry wasn’t the kind of person who relished the instantaneous. It seems to me that he liked things to proceed at a certain pace. That's perhaps the biggest problem he would have with the internet. The speed with which things come at you. What would you say about that?
Foye: He was very reflective in his general manner. He was certainly pretty slow in getting out of the house...
Singh: His work was so precision-oriented, it was very slow and tedious and repetitive.
Taaffe: But don't you think that's part of the biological necessity for the thought patterns and the memory and the archaic shamanistic renderings—that they are coming out of a certain kind of pace? Not this violence of immediacy. How would he have dealt with this question? How contemporary a person was he?
Singh: Well, he was both. His statements about technology were very much opposed to its effects. He felt the important things in life were song, dance, music. He had several statements which are quite hostile to technological innovation.
Tomaselli: Yet he was utilising the edge of technological innovation at the time that he was using it. Audio recording, film, these are the dominant late twentieth century technical contributions to culture, and he embraced them. My feeling is that he had a love of inter-disciplinary connections, and a considerable ability to assimilate current technologies. My assumption would be that he would dig the internet because it's the sort of technology that facilitates the connections that he was interested in, and he seems to have been OK with that, when it served his interests.
Philip Taaffe, Entrance, (2002). Acrylic ink on paper
mounted on canvas, 12 7/8 x 10 1/8 inches (33 x 26 cm)
Foye: Precisely. He was delighted when the DAT machine came out because it was much better sound. But he never wanted the technology to take over as the motivating or directing force. Harry once said, "All you need to make a film is the desire to make a film. Everything else is contained in the instructions on the box the film or the camera comes in."
Singh: But Fred is right, Harry was always using the technology that was available. When he was fifteen years old he was lugging a wireless recorder into the woods that required a lot of gear, heavy batteries or generators, and the like.
Foye: I always felt that Harry used machines as a way of relating to the world. He was too sensitive and it was too hard on him emotionally to do too much one-on-one. To have a recording device or some means through which he could be relate to the world was how he was most comfortable. He also used technology mediumistically.

Harry Smith, Jimbo's Bop City, 1950, in front
of a mural of his own design. Photo by Hy Hirsh.
Tomaselli: The fewer cumbersome things to get in your way, the fresher the mode of expression will be. Harry seems to have been one to not want to be too encumbered. There were laborious processes involved in his work, but there were also immediate ones that have to do with the moment he was in. I can relate to that. I use whatever I can, whatever works to make a thing. For us collagists, cutting things out of magazines is a lot more immediate than trying to paint them. And the effect is as good, if not better.
Foye: Harry was terrifically visual. I was always impressed how amidst all the anthropological and museological pursuits that he had in life, at the center of it all was the activity of painting. As long as I knew him he always had a space where he worked, with paints and paper on a small table. He spent many hours every day on his paintings and watercolors. One could never quite figure out how he did all the things that he did or where he found the time. But he always considered painting as the center of everything he did; he never seemed to have any doubts that it wouldn’t be able to hold all of these diverse ideas and interests.
Fred Tomaselli, New Jerusalem, (1998). Leaves, pills, acrylic,
photocollage, resin on wood panel, 60 x 60 inches (153 x 153 cm)
Tomaselli: Did he consider his films to be an image, or did he consider them to be a succession of images?
Foye: One nice thing about Harry's filmography is that all of the films, or groups of films, are so different from one another. He's involved with very different concerns at different times. But certainly some of the hand-painted films were about image-making in a way that was very closely related to his paintings of the time. Aside from the attractiveness of the novelty of the medium, the colors were much brighter when the films were properly projected. I think most importantly it was a way of getting the paintings to move. It was the logical outgrowth of the fascination with the kinetic or dynamic aspects that were embedded in the images that he was working with. Later it was about explicating the relationship between painting and music, such as the Thelonious Monk film, Misterioso.
Taaffe: That’s an extraordinary film. You just don't want it to be over. And then when it is, suddenly the entire film is reversed and you watch it backwards! Even the music is played backwards. It’s a great structuralist statement, a visual parallel to the music that really had to exist.
Foye: Thelonious Monk represented so much to Harry, as an artist, particularly in terms of abstract patterning and numerology.
Philip Taaffe, Embryonic Absrtaction, (2002).
Acrylic ink on paper, 12 x 16 1/4 inches (30 x 41 cm)
Taaffe: I’ve learned a lot about painting from listening to Monk: the elliptical nature of his music and how the permutations are worked out. I also loved the way he combined words sometimes to come up with his titles. He’s certainly one of my artistic heroes.
Foye: Phillip, when you were making experimental films as a student at Cooper Union, what did those films consist of and what were some of the influences behind them?

Film stills: Harry Smith, Heaven and
Earth Magic Feature,

Taaffe: I was ordering training films from the United States Army, and then I'd bring them to the lab and have them make a negative print, and then another positive print, and I'd take these prints back to the editing room and I would reassemble them. Then I shot titles which functioned almost like diaristic fragments. There was a wonderful film from the Department of the Army discussing the life-cycle of the Norway rat. I basically re-constructed the film. I was thinking of Bruce Conner and his films, and Robert Breer was my instructor. He was an extremely sharp man, very observant. He used to make these little wind-up robots and bring them to class. He would put them in one corner of the room and they would stumble across the floor...
Tomaselli: They were like little monochrome shapes, crawling around the floor, right?
Taaffe: Yeah, they would just roll around and they'd be doing their thing during the class while he was talking about whatever material he wanted to present. He was a very easy-going guy. I also made some super-eight films. I was really into the editing. I loved slicing ever so little pieces of film and putting them back together. One subject I used derived from a series of books on Luther Burbank's fruit and plant mutations. As he was developing new species of fruits and vegetables they were photographed repeatedly throughout the growing cycle, and these were illustrated quite beautifully in a series of books that I found in the library. The colors on the pages were soft and saturated. The plums were particularly nice, very fleshy, and they were photographed and printed in a beautiful manner. I filmed them with the movie camera with just enough frames to work with, and then I'd edit these frames so that the fruit seemed to be growing and contracting and growing again. I did a series of maybe twenty of these. I called them Fruit Loops. For my final presentation I got all of the projectors from the school, about six projectors in one room, and I was showing these film loops, and the fruit seemed to be dancing around the walls. It was quite lovely. I was also shooting Super 8 films in the Bronx Botanical Garden... very romantic stuff.

Tomaselli: You describe the editing process to be the main unifying element between painting and film. Do you consider your work to be grounded in the editing process?
Taaffe: In some sense, yes. I liked tearing apart lines, and I liked the surgical procedure of cutting and applying and taping. Also the history of cinema became important to me at one point. I thought of the process of making a painting as being about montage and assemblage and sequencing. My paintings always had a narrative feeling about them, and yet finally they were icons. I had to resolve this seeming contradiction. The paintings were about expression and gesture, but the gesture couldn't stand on its own—the mark had to be combined with other marks and be reflective of the larger scheme of things. I wasn't interested in just the gesture, but in shaping something structurally that would be more like making a movie.
Tomaselli: How did you make the transition from film to painting?
Philip Taaffe, Villa Urbana II, (2000-01). Mixed
media on canvas 61 x 73 in (155 x 185 cm)
Taaffe: When I was in art school in the mid-seventies, I was going to see paintings in the galleries, works by Robert Mangold, or Robert Ryman. And a host of other painters. But the discussion amongst the most advanced students simply did not involve painting. We were students of Hans Haacke, and painting was considered very hard to justify because of the critique of the commodity fetish, vis-à-vis the Frankfurt school of neo-Marxist philosophers. That was really the major concern in the mid-Seventies, so painting was something I shied away from. I was making films, and photography, and some weird kinds of sculptural installations.

Harry Smith with string figure,
1970. photo by John Palmer
Tomaselli: We're about the same age, we're probably informed by similar moments in history. It sounds like you and me both were being taught that painting was bourgeois, and that its commodity status made it wanting in terms of it's lack of radicality, and that true risk was occurring in installation and performance art. What this attitude set up for a lot people our age, was a strong sense of doubt. We worked it out through other mediums and we found our way back to painting, and painting was in fact the most radical thing we could do in that particular context.To embrace painting, was to be misunderstood as somebody who was a reactionary; Somebody who wasn't truly getting out on a creative limb or who was playing it safe. It's interesting because at this point in time I feel there is no friction whatsoever in the acceptance of video, installation or performance in the artworld. In fact, those media are as acceptable as any painting today. It makes no difference. Radicality is not predicated on the medium that one is expressing oneself in.

Harry Smith, Zodiac drawing,
colored pencil, watercolor and
acrylic enamel on bristol board.
14 1/2 x 14 3/4 inches (37 x 38 cm)
Harry Smith, Zodiac drawing,
colored pencil, watercolor and
acrylic enamel on bristol board.
14 1/2 x 14 3/4 inches (37 x 38 cm)

Fred Tomaselli, collage
materials, c. 1998
Taaffe: I spent a good two years after I got out of school reading some of the classics of Western literature, just to get a better handle on things. I formed a study group with an older friend of mine who was an amateur theologian. I remember we decided upon Herodotus, Chaucer, John Calvin, more critical theory and a standard economics textbook. We read them through completely, which was wonderful, but then I felt I had better decide what to do as an artist.
Tomaselli: I was taught to think that way also. In the nineteen seventies and eighties you had to deal with everyone telling you that painters are morons. And then by making a painting you were almost saying, “I am an idiot.” So you had to get through all this doubt about painting, if you were the least bit conversant with the current philosophies of the time. Making art was one of the few healthy things that I got pleasure from, and yet I was being told by the culture and by teachers and fellow artists that it was all over. I disregarded the conventional wisdom of nihilism and did it anyway, even though it felt a little hopeless. There was, and still is, a lot of doubt in my work.
Taaffe: Yes, but I was going to say that given the critical atmosphere that we went through, it also informed one's ideas about painting. A painting has to meet certain critical standards, and we have that sense perhaps more strongly because of this negative atmosphere we were faced with. Ultimately I feel very re-enforced by having passed through all of that. I think a painting still has to do a lot. It still has to justify it's existence. A painting has to be a strong, intelligently powered idea, there's no doubt about that. The critical faculty remains important.
Tomaselli: It's just more information that can lead to the re-interpretable nature of painting. Painting may be informed by some of this doubt or some of the philosophy that comes out of the skepticism about painting, and that might be in the painting in tandem with other ideas that you're working out. To me, it seems like painting has the ability to assimilate lots of different kinds of information, and this complexity is a mirror of the world we live in. You can throw the philosophy in and it doesn't hurt the painting one bit. It just gives the viewer an extra little something to think about and becomes part of the text behind the painting.

Oskar Fischinger, Los Angeles,
1946, courtesy Jack Ruthberg Finebh
Arts and Oskar Fischinger Fine Arts
Taaffe: I had always liked to make paintings, and when I left school it became for me, existentially speaking, the most radical thing that I could do. I was living at the General Theological Seminary, in Chelsea, just before I moved to Jersey City. I was going to see movies in the afternoon and then I'd come home and I'd try to work at night. I had a small room, and on one wall I mounted drawing paper, and using paint sticks and a little cassette tape recorder I'd start to work myself into a frenzy, describing a part of the film that I had seen. When I started to induce this activity I was making lines on the paper, and as the lines suggested certain pictorial memories, I began to speak into the microphone. Then I'd throw another piece of paper over the paint-stick and start another one. I did this for a couple of months—not every night, because it was a very intense activity. After a while I noticed that as I was murmuring into the microphone and making these lines and describing what I was trying to get at in the painting, the words would fall away and the gestures and images would take over...
Foye: What you're describing is a ritual. A ritualistic process.

Athanasius Kircher, earlist illustration
of a magic lattern. In Ars magna
lucis et umbrae,
Amsterdam, 1671

Magic latern projection
slides, late 1860s
Taaffe: It was some sort of ritual activity, yes. Very much so. But the important point is that as I was doing this, the language fell away and I became more interested in what I was constructing pictorially. At that time I felt I knew in my bones I was in the right place, to be engaged in this process of visual gesture building. I was convinced that not only did I have the capability for it, although I suppose this was evident to me by then, but that this was also a deeply personal activity which could take into consideration everything I cared about. In terms of my reading, in terms of my understanding of the history of cinema, and with regard to virtually any other subject I might learn about or expose myself to, I realized that painting, as a discipline, might be able to reflect or contain all of these ideas. And it had nothing to do with the limited idea of the contextualization of the art object as a consumer fetish.
Foye: Did you ever have similar experiences in terms of ritualized activity, of going to some strange place and coming back with evidence of that?
Tomaselli: Well, there are different events that I've used as systems to make paintings. In 1996, I did a piece called "Dermal Delivery or How I Quit Smoking". Everyday, while I was quitting smoking, I would take a nicotine patch off my body and place it on the surface of the painting. I would then add little square photographs of skin, Band-Aids, and paint until it looked like a big flesh colored quilt. I was thinking about the ideal of paint as skin. It was a really hard piece to make because quitting smoking made me go a little crazy. I've also put panels out at night in the woods and aimed lights at them, thereby summoning huge clouds of insects to swarm around the work. I would then pour resin onto the panels and captured these bugs as a kind of portrait of the atmosphere, but also as a reliquary of a collision between nature and technology.
Foye: That’s also a form of landscape.
Tomaselli: It is a form of landscape, absolutely. But then I use that as a jumping-off point for making a painting. Lot's of my work involves private performance and experiments but they probably resemble more of a Victorian empiricism rather than any type of shamanistic losing-yourself-kind-of-thing. I've had ecstatic and otherworldly experiences, either on drugs, or sitting on top of a cliff in Yosemite on a full lunar eclipse...whatever. I've had these moments, but I need to be detached from them to have some clarity about the experience. I have to put myself at a distance before I try to incorporate that experience into my work. I haven't taken LSD since 1980, and it took me about ten years to get some of that information into my work. I have very conflicted feelings about those experiences and I try to incorporate that scepticism into the work.
Philip Taaffe, Red Caliph, (2002). Acrylic ink on
paper mounted on canvas, 10 1/2 x 6 in (27 x 15 cm)
Foye: For me, what’s of value in the drug experience, is the refreshment of vision that can result. Either challenging reality in a major way through psychedelics, or else just twisting one’s consciousness slightly through marijuana.
Taaffe: I find that grass helps me on occasion to cut through the heart of the problem, it can be very focusing in that respect. I especially like to smoke it at the end of a busy day when I’m trying to resolve a particular painting. It’s really good for this. I make lots of procedural notes that I apply towards the next day’s project.
Tomaselli: In my life I have only ever been able to access the sublime chemically. I realise that I'm a mediated person for whom there are so many artificial versions of the real that I've experienced long before I've experienced the real- and so many cultural versions of the original, that it's very hard for me to access an original experience. I tend to question my identity in light of the manipulations that I'm subjected to. One really doesn't know where one's desires come from or why one even wants certain things. In that context drugs can be almost the only original experience one can have, because they are being generated from within your body. They're not an externally manipulated experience that's coming at you. They are a little dangerous, and the sublime is a little dangerous....

Harry Smith, Two untitled drawings, (circa. 1976).
Ink on paper, 11 1/2 x 14 3/4 inches (30 x 38 cm)
Taaffe: What characterizes the sublime is the fear of that something which is beyond all human control. It’s a quality that can certainly be attributed to nature at times, but it really refers to events or experiences that are almost too much for the human soul to bear. And so, one of the means we’ve been given in order to glimpse the depth of these kinds of experiences is through the use of entheogenic substances.
Tomaselli: Yes, and in that respect I feel that's the only way I have ever been able to access the sublime. I'm very interested in the concept of the sublime and its influence, because it's a major subject in the history of art and it also happens to be the major component around drugs. Harry Smith is certainly an exemplary artist of an earlier generation who explored that connection in a useful way.

Harry Smith, Zodiac drawing,
colored pencil, watercolor and
acrylic enamel on bristol board.
14 1/2 x 14 3/4 inches (37 x 38 cm)
Harry Smith, Zodiac drawing,
colored pencil, watercolor and
acrylic enamel on bristol board.
14 1/2 x 14 3/4 inches (37 x 38 cm)
Foye: In the 1840's Baudelaire was writing about the idea of the artificial paradise. Hashish, wine, opium. That whole combination of drugs and painting and poetry and modernism goes back a hundred and fifty in a very direct way.
Taaffe: I think all of these things can be extremely advantageous to an artist. It’s all a question of maintaining the right distance and finding the right applications. I believe one must be very objective about what needs to happen in a work of art. When you get an idea for a work, that idea in a sense is coming from an ecstatic place, at that moment when the idea being given shape occurs is also the decisive moment which contains the temporal implication of, “Alright, this is what I now must do based upon this initial idea to see it made manifest.” But I think that idea, that generative impulse, is always coming from an unconscious state. Attendant upon that instant of realization is a leap that you must take that is coming out of the faith you have in yourself and your own artistic history and what you want to do next. For example, what you were saying about your Archimboldo-inspired piece as perhaps signalling a new direction in your work that you may continue to continue. To do that you will have to be very observant in this Victorian sense you mentioned, and very specimen-oriented, exacting and organized, et cetera, However, the originating impulse...where does it comes from? That is the most sacred and magical phenomenon.

Harry Smith and Stan Brakhage

Harry Smith, c. 1965. Photo by John Palmer
Tomaselli: For me it's a combination of laborious techniques that are done in an empirical way, mixed with little pulses of mysterious inspiration. You get going on a painting and along the way you have small flashes of realization, and they're quick. "Oh, yeah!" and then you know what you want to do. Along the way you get other little pulses that might move you to a place different than that initial impulse, and then that's when the work starts to take over.
Taaffe: Your nervous system is guiding you...
Tomaselli: Exactly. To be absorbed in the making of a painting is to lose yourself. But even while losing myself in my work I do very intently try to keep in my mind that I am making a vivid, convincing object, for myself, and in the process I hope that work will translate to other people. I don't have any control over that, but I am tapping into some archetypes I think, and I am tapping into some things that are real, and some conditions there are real and that affect me and that I think affect other people, and hopefully the work can communicate but ultimately I have no control over that so I'm just trying to make the work I want to see and the work I want to see isn't necessarily out in the world already so I have to make it in order to see it. It is ultimately a non-intellectual, and quite intuitive process. As much as there's a lot of detached fabrication and assemblage and building in my work, those moves are always in tandem with these other impulses that are completely non-intellectual. I don't know where they're coming from, but I've learned to pay close attention to them. I think good artists do pay attention to this stuff.
Foye: One topic I wanted to touch on is the subject of folk art and folk music. Harry used to say that recorded history extends back only five thousand years. Mankind has been around for five hundred thousand years. What about everything that came before recorded history? That’s where songs and dances come in: folk art is a way of tapping into these archaic echoes. How do you feel about folk tradition and how you use it in your work?
Philip Taaffe, Painting with Teeth, (2002). Mixed media on canvas, 44 1/4 x 54 1/4 inches (112 x 138 cm)

Harry Smith, Tree of Life (details), (1954). Mixed media on board.
Photograph by Jordan Belson of the lost original. Apx. 24 x 4 inches (61 x 10 cm)
Taaffe: For me it has to do with a geographical and historical transposition. I seriously want to make a parallel visual environment to what I imagine were parts or fragments of another lived cultural reality. I'm travelling through my work, and trying to provide another reality. Yes, it’s an imaginary one, however it consists of these other cultural forms that are catalytic in nature. They spark memory, and they provide clues or marks to guide one along this journey. I think of a painting as a journey, not only in terms of its making, but also in terms of the personality and the mind of the artist who has shaped this thing. It is coming from life. This is what makes a painting the specific thing that it is. I think that the folk forms are celebratory markings or points of passage into an imaginary reality, they become characters in the pictorial fiction—the story as it exists in the painted work. And it constitutes a means whereby this alternate reality can be actually built up.
Foye: Folk art forms also have a vitality, or a veracity, but are operating on a premise that is not so different or distant.
Tomaselli: They're not self-consciously "Art."
Foye: Well, they don't involve theory usually, right?
Tomaselli: No, they don't involve theory. They actually involve the decorative. It's a funny thing because towards the end of modernism, the decorative is another of the bad things that you're not supposed to do, another taboo. I love the vividness of folk art, the fervency of belief behind it.
Taaffe: It’s also about reaffirming some lost tribal identity.
Tomaselli: There's also a wonderful friction that it can have when it's conversing with modernism. I love throwing enemy-isms into one place and letting them fight it out, letting those frictions occur, letting those juxtapositions create new meaning. I love the vivid un-self-conscious quality of folk art and I love how that can simultaneously inhabit the space of something that's very self-conscious. It sets off new kinds of sparks. One can be inspired simultaneously by quilts and by Frank Stella.
Foye: Folk art is visually very emblematic.

 Tomaselli: It's also very embellished and worked over. I'm talking very generally now. You can find very simple folk art and patterns but there is usually the tendency to embellish the hell out of things. If you look at the obsessive dotting in Aboriginal folk art for example, you tend to see this embellishment of form. It's almost like you're petting or stroking this object with obsessive-compulsive marks. It gives the object more value, more worth, more resonance and more magic somehow. It's almost like you're loving this object a little more just by over handling it. I feel that same thing can happen in contemporary art. You can stroke and love an object with your hands and give it a little more meaning.


Jordan Belson, Four Punctums, (c. 1999).
Pastel on paper 10 x 8 inches (26 x 21 cm)

Jordan Belson, untitled drawing, (c. 1999).
Pastel on paper 12 x 9 1/2 inches (31 x 25 cm)
Taaffe: I have always seen certain abstract paintings as tribal fetishes, in a way, or as having talismanic power. At that time in the mid-eighties when I wanted to reflect upon these other paintings that I felt close to, I decided that rather than making some influenced variant of these works, in the school of so-and-so, I would make my own representative version of a specific abstract work. In an effort to find my way, I wanted to see if I could produce a convincing version of a previous abstract painting by making it on the same scale and in the same way, not slavishly, but lovingly, as a tribal recapitulation or as a form of liturgical re-enactment.
Tomaselli: It's a really wonderful thing to inject collective consciousness into art that has been very individualistically defined, right? It's the rugged individual making their vision manifest in the world. To take the collective and to wed it to the individual is again, an interesting friction.
Foye: And it's very much at the root of the tribal.
Tomaselli: And very much not about modernism, not in the way that I understand it at least.
Taaffe: Somehow in any given folk art language one can always feel the essence of a people. There's some essence of the joy of that particular place in history, which has coalesced or crystalizes in the folk form. That's what gives it its richness and that's what makes it very particular and embraceable. When I quote lesser known motifs in my work it is usually with the idea of recognizing previous art historical or architectural ideas and bringing them into a contemporary reality. Similarly, with folk elements, it’s an attempt to bring various cultural traditions together, to see what they might have to say to one another. It is a search for ways of healing rather than continuing the process of modernist rupture.
Philip Taaffe, Abstract Figure, (2002). Oil
and acrylic on paper 30 x 21 inches (76 x 56 cm)
Foye: I think that’s the main reason why Harry’s Anthology of American Folk Music has had such an enduring place in American music for so many years. It’s more popular today than ever. Because it’s about roots, and what you refer to as cultural binding. That music is also weird beyond belief.

Jordan Belson, Allures, 1950

Tomaselli: It dissolves any distinction between traditional or avant-garde. I think it was Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band that really opened my world to just how far music could go and still relate to a past. It was extremely avant-garde, hybridizing with free jazz and rock yet rooted in delta blues and a love of nature. The first concert I ever attended was a Beefheart show and I saw him every chance I could until he stopped performing.
Taaffe: I don’t believe that one must entirely accept the culture that one is in. If you are an artist, part of your job is to change that culture, to create alternative cultural possibilities. At a certain point in my development as a painter, I simply had to leave New York. I moved to Naples for almost four years. I didn't really know what I was becoming part of, but I knew I needed some fresh cultural sources for my work. It was a really tough period for me to make my work and to live, and I needed to be elsewhere. I needed to change my cultural surroundings because I was starting to become more interested in working with motifs and stories from other parts of the world, and I wanted to actually relocate myself to another geographical place. It was about desire. That move represented the beginnings of the a desire for deeper cultural experiences so that my work could begin to take more into consideration.
Foye: Harry was fascinated by patterns as indicators of deeper structures that humans employ in all sorts of activities. If there’s one anecdote that sums up Harry for me, it’s the story of his discovering that Sara Carter, one of the founders of country music in America, was living in a small town in California. He went to visit her high on peyote in 1945, and he tried to involve her in a discussion about the relationship between her quilt designs and her music. It sounds like some aspect of the Unified Theory of Everything.
Tomaselli: Yeah, well, whatever that theory is, I believe it. Because one does start to see these archetypes repeated over and over again in different cultures at different times. I've been very inspired by quilts and have channeled my love for them in a variety of works. I love the fact that a quilt is made out of these otherwise useless scraps of material that form this thing that keeps you warm. Not a bad idea. In 1989, for instance, I made a sleeping bag out of quilted together sex fantasy hotline matchbooks; It was entitled "Comforter". I imagined a lonely guy getting into it and feeling ... less lonely. The “Dermal Delivery” piece I mentioned earlier was based on the quilt design. I made a sheet of "blotter acid" in 1991 that was composed of mandalas made out of youth culture rebellion logos on a perforated paper grid Ö another kind of quilt.
Philip Taaffe, Portal, (1994?95).
Mixed media on canvas, 113 1/2
x 58 1/2 inches (288 x 148 cm)
Foye: Harry was certainly out of step with the art world, or it was out of step with him. He seems to have always been doing the right thing at the wrong time. We used to go to gallery openings together—he was genuinely interested and aware of what was going on in the art world. He was very open and always looked carefully at things. For me it was a very sad situation, although he had long ago come to accept that he did not have any place whatsoever in the art world. He was out of fashion in every way at the time. I always thought of him as more of medieval scribe, or someone from another time who was just visiting.
Tomaselli: These outsiders create their own place in art history, it just takes a bit longer. The dialogue in art in the 1970s was very stripped down, very minimalist and conceptual and that was considered the vanguard, the edge. And then there were these odd-balls like Harry, who were maximalists. They put a lot of things into their work. It's about the opposite of formal reduction. It's about inclusion, it's about piling information on. A lot of those artists didn't make it into the cannon initially, because of the ideologies and the manifestos of the time. Picabia was unjustly neglected for years and one could make the case that he's really one of the first Post-Modernists, he's really just playing with history and in a very witty way.

The Heavenly Tree. V. Weigel,
Stadium Universale , Frankfurt, 1698.

Harry Smith, diagrammatic drawing, c. 1977
Taaffe: At this distance in time we can talk about Harry Smith and Minimalism in the same breath and see the essential differences as well as the parallels. There's a telescoping that happens with the passing of a generation which allows us to see artistic moments and personalities in closer proximity to one another. I’ve always thought that the strongest examples of the minimalist aesthetic, in spite of their seeming austerity, managed to project a radical materiality in a deeply personal way. The fact that Carl Andre worked as a Pennsylvania Railroad brakeman for sometime in the brakeyards outside of Newark, New Jersey—near where I grew up—was always particularly significant to me. I felt a strong emotional connection to that rail yard romance, and saw the poetry of that very closely in his work. I think the best minimal art does have a fullness, an experiential completeness.
Tomaselli: I agree, Minimal art can be extremely full. I love Donald Judd's work, although at the time he was exhibiting I was very skeptical about how much he threw away in the process of purifying those objects. I've come to realise that Judd was far more irrational in his pursuit of the rational that I'd initially thought. His boxes seem to contain the fanatically repressed. I like artists who communicate the vividness of their inner worlds. It could be commands from space aliens, crucifying yourself to a Volkswagen, or rants against the New World Order—it doesn't matter-as long as it's fully realized. I'm a huge fan of the Shaker "gift" drawings, which are visual manifestations of spiritual possession. One "spiritual abstractionist" who I especially like is Hilma af Klint.
Foye: Harry always said that the very first non-objective paintings were from C.W. Leadbeater's "Thought Forms" published in London in 1902. Leadbeater made all sorts of fascinating paintings illustrating various mental and spiritual states. That book also had paintings based on the music of Bach, Mozart, Scriabin, it was very influential on people like Kandinsky and Kupka and Mondrian, all of whom were Theosophists. How would you characterize these early spiritual abstractions, because they represent such a complete break with the past?
Fred Tomaselli, Birds (detail), (1997). Leaves, photocollage,
acrylic, resin on wood panel, 60 x 60 inches (153 x 153 cm)

Tomaselli: They manifest the invisible. I don't know how to talk about that sort of thing, since I'm a secular person. Maybe there's some deep genetic encoding inside of us that is in fact what we call spiritual, like some kind of Jungian, primordial symbolic archetype. Nevertheless, I don't know what that is.

Philip Taaffe, Radiant Study (1988?89). Encaustic
relief print, silkscreen on linen 55 x 55 inches (140 x 140 cm)

Harry Smith, Manteca, c. 1948
Foye: The collage aesthetic was certainly central to Harry's work as a filmmaker. How do you think about the collage aesthetic? Obviously, collage is a large part of the work that both of you do.
Taaffe: I think collage is the most important artistic invention of the twentieth century. Of course, it wasn’t “invented” in the twentieth century—gluing images together as a method of pictorial application goes way back, but as a deliberate artistic tool, collage has been put to unprecedented uses by painters and filmmakers for only about a hundred years now. My own approach, and I think there are similarities to what Fred does here, is to blur the boundaries between what is painted and what is collaged. I build up my paintings in a constant back and forth play between these two possibilities. For me, it’s kind of extreme in that I will actually produce a vast array of printed collage material which is made specifically to be applied toward the situation of a single painting. Every painting has a distinct image vocabulary with a distinct scale, and this vocabulary is intended to be used architectonically as collage, that is, with the same structural intentions as a painted line. So for me, this idea of being able to freely substitute an already defined image on paper for a painted mark is a predominant factor in my work.
Tomaselli: When I talk about my work as hybrids, it's another way of talking about a collage aesthetic but it's also not necessarily collage in the purest sense of the word. I try to keep the viewer a little bit off balance as to the nature of the reality of the things they're seeing. The paintings are composed out of a combination of real things, photos and paint and it's hard to tell the difference between them at a glance. You have to really look at my work to know what you're seeing. I'm also creating a kind of hybrid art form, not just in terms of its materiality but in terms of the ideologies and pictorial traditions that are coming together.I'm trying to use the collage/hybrid aesthetic to talk about the modern predicament of perception.
Foye: How would you characterize that predicament?
Tomaselli: I would say that the dislocation of reality is in fact the basic condition of modern man in a technological, globalized economy. That it is actually the story of our perceptions right now, and there has never been a more endlessly diverse menu of reality scramblements available in the history of the world. One is entirely unsure of what the authentic is at this particular point in time. Our society has been reduced to a vast mall-culture theme park, cyber-reality cut-and-paste photo-shopped world. One longer knows the nature of reality. I think that is one of the dominant issue's surrounding images today.
Foye: Recently there’s been a lot of scientific research concerning a possible chemical basis for the spiritual experience.
Tomaselli: It's interesting when you take God and reduce Him to chemistry.
Foye: What does that mean?

Anthology Liner Notes booklet
designed by Harry Smith, 1952
Tomaselli: Terrence McKenna often spoke about that phenomenon, and you can dismiss him as a cranky visionary, but a few of the things he's written have made sense to me, such as the idea that the origin of religion actually arises from man's experiences with natural hallucinogens. McKenna made a fairly good argument in favor of that. And one increasingly finds the availability of hallucinogens in or around the areas where major religions started.
Foye: Have you ever analyzed what is the source of the power of the image?
Taaffe: I’ve never felt the need for analysis in this department. Although I should say that if bitter theological wars can be waged over this very subject, then it’s probably a question that has still never been completely resolved, and may never will...
Tomaselli: I'm not sure exactly what you mean by the power of the image, but possibly in painting it's about the idea of fixing the ephemeral. The idea that you can look at or gaze at a thing that's generally not accessible to you and that there's something incredibly magnetic about that experience. It's concretising the things that are so slippery that we really can't ever touch them in ordinary life...just getting them to stop long enough to gaze at them.
Foye: And if you can fix them with the right degree of precision, it elevates the experience to another level. That is an important factor operative in all of Harry’s paintings and films: extreme precision. It’s very much about an extremely precise placement of something in relation to something else. What is that? Is it just the mechanics of making an image? Is it the art, is it the craft?
Philip Taaffe, Devonian Landscape, (1999-2000). Mixed media on linen, 54 3/4 x 114 3/8 inches (138 x 290 cm)

Harry Smith, Notebook page, c. 1977

Harry Smith, book cover drawings for
Allen Ginsberg's Collected Poems c. 1983

Harry Smith, Modular drawings, c 1974
Tomaselli: People seem to be transfixed by things that they can't imagine doing themselves. My work is the result of a lot of little moves guided by a combination of detached cerebralism and intuition. It starts out as a blank thing, a piece of wood, and through thousands and thousands of tiny little micro-moves, this things builds itself up like an organism out of cells. Hopefully when you see them you're not thinking about all the work -- you're just apprehending them as an effortless experience. That's the state I'd like the viewer to be in when standing in front of those pieces. I just want them to be in the work, to be lost in the work. My desire, is for it to become a transportive vehicle to take the viewer somewhere else. They can think about what it means later.
Foye: Would you say there is a gambling instinct operative in making a picture?
Tomaselli: More and more there is, for me. The longer I'm an artist the more intuition and spontaneity play a greater and greater role. I think initially when I started on my project, I was firmly rooted in the conceptual tradition where I had an idea and, like Sol Lewit, I thought of my brain as the primary executioner of the art and that I then fabricate the object with my hands. Now I really feel like I don't know what the object is going to look like until I make it, and even then, I have to intuit my way, with more or less spontaneous moves to find my way to finishing the thing. In other words, I never know where a picture is going to go when I start, or how it's going to look when it's finished, and I now allow myself a lot more play and a lot more openness to changing my mind and changing directions. The works don't show their struggle because I take a lot of care in cleaning them up but it's there. I used to consider myself a person who assembled pictures but now I guess I've evolved into a painter.
Taaffe: On one level, making a painting is always an extraordinary gamble, and it should be. I think the more an artist risks in terms of constantly moving forward into unknown territory, and the more one takes into consideration along the way, the better the art will be—theoretically at least. And this is a profound issue, because there is a big difference between what is potentially envisioned and that which is fully realized or becomes knowledge. An artist cannot do everything, so the choices he or she makes and the parameters that are set up for the work will clearly effect the result. On the other hand, I see it as a basic given that an artist’s primary responsibility is to experiment, to try things out that don’t always work out, and to do the practical research necessary to expand their point of view and to broaden their range of subject matter. So “gambling,” from the standpoint of praxis, is all in a day’s work, so to speak.
Foye: There’s something that Picasso once mentioned, about having to learn to do consciously what one previously did unconsciously. At a certain point as an artist, one has to confront one’s self-awareness of what one is doing, and that can be quite an obstacle.
Tomaselli: That's funny, I think with me it's just the opposite.
Fred Tomaselli, Daturatron, (1998). Leaves, Photocollage,
Acrylic, Resin on Wood Panel 60 x 60 inches (153 x 153 cm)
Foye: That seems to be what you were saying earlier.

Harry Smith at the Chelsea Hotel, 1970s
Tomaselli: I started out very self-conscious about making art and have recently found my way back to, or maybe for the first time, to a more unconscious way of working. When I first began attending college, there was still a Modernist discourse, with new developments happening every day, and it was the same in the counterculture. It seemed like there was this incredible endless momentum into the future. Then somewhere in the middle of my education it all crashed and burned into disco and postmodernism. Both of these things happened at the same time, and it created a genuine crisis. People responded to this crisis in different ways, many of which were very cynical, so there was a lot of cynical art that was being done in response to that condition. I responded initially by involving myself very intensely in the Punk scene and I think it saved my life. On the other hand, I knew I still wanted to be an artist, I just didn't quite know how. So when I first started making these images there was a strong sense of self-consciousness about the activity. As if to say, maybe this is all over, maybe this is wrong but I'm going to do it anyway. A lot of the questions I was asking about myself as an artist and about art were being addressed in the work: How does art function? What does art mean? Now my work doesn't have as much to do with those questions. I never did answer those questions, I just set them aside and replaced them with new one's.
Foye: So there was an act of faith involved at the start, which was not borne out by the state of things in the world at large?
Tomaselli: Yeah, there was, and still is, a lot of doubt in my work. I mean, making art was one of the few healthy things I got pleasure from, and yet I was being told by the culture and by teachers and fellow artists that it was all over. I disregarded the conventional wisdom of nihilism and did it anyway, even though it felt a little hopeless.
Fred Tomaselli, Blue Circles, (1995). Pills, Acrylic,
Resin on Wood Panel 72 x 54 inches (183 x 138 cm)
Foye: One aspect that I find consistent throughout Harry’s work is a formal or structural rigor beneath the lushness. The works are poised between lushness and rigor. Do you feel these are two poles where you can go towards one but are inevitably being pulled back toward the other?
Tomaselli: I think each one is a healthy corrective to the other. My project has been informed by a variety of disparate “isms.” It seems that by alternating between geometrically-based abstraction and representation, I can keep both fairly fresh for me. By switching channels like that. By making a figurative work immediately after an abstract work it seems like I'm cleaning the palette. I don't feel like I'm just cranking out a product. I'm keeping the product very interesting to myself.
Foye: Have you ever felt the need to define yourself as either an abstract or a realist painter?
Tomaselli: No, I don't feel like I have to make those kind of definitions. In a funny way everything I do is sort of realistic because there are real things in there. Like in this piece here, which is very abstract, it may look like a bunch of dots and dashes and so on, but there are real leaves there at the basis of it. So there are always little bits of reality, or bits of pop culture that are contaminating the purity. It can never be entirely non-objective abstraction because there's always something real at the basis of it. There's always realism at the very core of it. So I don't feel like those categories really apply to me.
Philip Taaffe, Flare, (2003). Mixed media
on linen. 27 1/2 x 37 3/4 in (70 x 96 cm)

Zapotec blanket, Oaxaca, Mexico

Star of Bethlehem quilt, American,
19th century caption caption
Taaffe: I did think of myself as an abstract artist when I started out, but in recent years I’ve been trying to come to terms with representation—I feel a certain responsibility to come to terms with it, as an artist, but I want to find my own way of approaching it. My involvement with nature imagery was the start of that tendency, or desire. But still, the general process I’m involved with in painting is very abstract, in the sense that I plan a series of initial gestures that go on fairly rapidly, and then the length of time it takes me to sort out the implications of this first phase is disproportionately longer. Maybe it’s literally an abstract condition in the sense that the process is “drawn out” in this way. It takes me an hour to begin a painting and six months to finish it.

Foye: Do you feel that by now the various polemical bases for non-objective art is no longer relevant?
Tomaselli: Not for me. I feel that one of the things that went out the window with the end of Modernism was the end of manifesto-ism. Modernism and all of its manifestos. Yes, there are certain things that I believe in strongly, but I'm not involved in an Oedipal game to destroy the last “ism” by making this very strong argument for my own view. I'm not trying to knock the last guy off the historical totem pole so I can climb up on top until somebody knocks me off. I just don't think that history is playing itself out in that way any more, if it ever did play itself out like that, which I doubt, actually. I certainly don't see it that way now. I see it as more horizontal than vertical. Things are happening simultaneously, and we live in a simultaneity of histories. I don't feel compelled to keep saying, “No, no, no, this is the only thing I believe.” Again, I'm very open and very catholic about my tastes.

Harry Smith book cover design
for Aleister Crowley's Thelema.
Fred Tomaselli, Echo, Wow and Flutter, (2000). Leaves, pills, photocollage,
acrylic, and resin on wood panel two panels: 84 x 120 inches (213 x 304 cm)
Taaffe: Those fundamental critical arguments remain an important part of our artistic heritage, and we continue to benefit from them even if they seem so out of step we the demands we are presently facing. I think we can assume they tell a large part of the truth about how those pictures came into existence and about the intellectual atmosphere that propelled them. And this is not only all quite fascinating, but these modernist tropes represent the philosophical foundation out of which we are operating today—however liberated we may feel from them. I would say if we can learn from these modernist formulations, and think of them as working tropes, then we will just have a lot more to bring to what we’re doing. My feeling is that real freedom can come from some of these ideas rather than dismissing them as so much water under the bridge.
Foye: It’s more a matter of pushing painting to a place that it hasn’t gone rather than trying to refine some aesthetic that is in some way previously codified?

Harry Smith by Allen Ginsberg, NYC, 1988
Tomaselli: Well, nobody works in a vacuum and we always inherit codes as painters, as anybody in the arts would. You work with the past and you try to make something new out of that. You're playing around with somebody's Modernist tropes which are all about a kind of purity, and you infect them with these viruses of their antithesis. And you create a new form out of combining these two enemies. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to make something new out of all those histories. Within these hybrids I hope something new is being created. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But whenever you deal directly with history, hopefully you're dealing with people that you respect, who you know and love and want to expand upon their project. Because that makes for the best art in my opinion.

 Bloomberg, "Dr. Doom's Party, Ghostly Canvases, Tomaselli's $500,000 Owl: Chelsea Art." by Katya Kazakina

The Believer, "The Process in which an artist discusses making a particular work: Fred Tomaselli - Night Music for Raptors" by The Believer

Art Critical, "Fred Tomaselli at the Tang," by Eric Gelber, May 5 2010

Art & Auction, "Fred Tomaselli," by Meghan Dailey, May 1 2010

ARTnews, "Fred Tomaselli Aspen Art Museum," by Kyle MacMillan, November 2009

ArtForum, "Fred Tomaselli Aspen Art Museum," by Catherine Taft, November 2009

Flavorwire, "Beyond the Drugs: Exploring the Work of Artist Fred Tomaselli," by Sara Distin, October 9, 2009

1stdibs, "Not To Be Missed: Fred Tomaselli at the Aspen Art Museum," by Anthony Barzilay Freund, August 26, 2009

Another Magazine, "Magic Realism," by Siri Hustvedt, Autumn/Winter 2007

Art & Auction, "What's Your Pleasure?" by Carol Kino, February 2007

Art & Auction, "A New High," by Sarah Douglas, January 2007

New York Times, "Art In Review: Fred Tomaselli at James Cohan Gallery," by Jeffrey Kastner, November 03, 2006

Paper Mag, "Fred Tomaselli," by Sarah Valdez, November 03, 2006

Spirituality & Health, "Opening: A New Way of Seeing," by Ronnie Shushan, November/December 2006

Artnews, "How Bloopers Become Breakthroughs," by Deidre Stein Greben, November 2006

Village Voice, "Best in Show: Black on Blonde," by R.C. Baker, October 27, 2006

Artinfo, "The AI Interview: Fred Tomaselli," by Robert Ayers, October 25, 2006

Artforum.com, "Critics' Picks: Fred Tomaselli," by Lauren O'Neill-Butler, October 14, 2006

Art Papers, "Swarm: Philadelphia," by Edward Epstein, July/August 2006

Brooklyn Rail, "Trenton Doyle Hancock & Fred Tomaselli with Dan Nadel," by Dan Nadel, May 2006

Art & Living, "Is it Real or is it Ecstasy?" by Janet Margolis, 2006, Issue 1

Elle Decor, "Fred Tomaselli," by David Colman, May 2005

Breathe, "Visual Chemistry," by Meredith Tromble, May/June 2005

The Herald, "The Natural Thing to Do," by Moira Jeffrey, July 30, 2004

ArtReview, "The Collector," by Jonathan Letham, July/August 2004

Art in America, "Fred Tomaselli at James Cohan," by Carol Kino, December 2003

Artforum, "Fred Tomaselli at James Cohan Gallery," by Tom Breidenbach, September 2003

Parkett, "Transcendence is Pop," by James Rondeau, 2003

Parkett, "Tomasell's Postmodern Gnosticism," by Daniel Pinchbeck, 2003

Parkett, "Through a Window, Darkly," by Dan Cameron, 2003

The New Art Examiner, "Fred Tomaselli," by Carol Schwarzman, April 2001

New York Times, "Fred Tomaselli," by Holland Cotter, January 19, 2001

Interview, "Fred Tomaselli: He Brings Ideas to Life," by Neville Wakefield, January 2001

New York Times, "He Dropped Out Of Drugs, and Put Them in His Art," by William Harris, December 19, 1999

Time Out New York, "Fred Tomaselli, "Gravity's Rainbow"," by Andrea K. Scott, December 16, 1999

Artnews, "Prescription for Beauty," by Hilarie M. Sheets, November 1999

Salon, "Artist's Little Helper," by Susan Emmerling, October 29, 1999

Art in America, "Transportive Visions," by Gregory Volk, July 1999



Nema komentara:

Objavi komentar