PRINT November 1995


JANE BOWLES ONCE WROTE to her husband, her dearest Bupple, “I keep forgetting what writing is supposed to be anyway. ” She had already published a novel, Two Serious Ladies, which she decided “was after all not a novel. ” She forgot what a novel was and forgot marriage for mariage blanc. Later on, forgetting the grammar of present and future, she would sign a copy of her collected works as “Dead Jane Bowles. ” What did she learn from forgetting it all— did it burn or was it soothing as a final balm? Understand that she was not praising ignorance, that this is not in praise of ignorance, although it is in praise of something like learning to be ignorant. Or forgetting to remember.

Tom Friedman forgets what art is supposed to be anyway. Spaghetti, bubble gum, toothpaste, pubic hair, soap, aspirin, shit, masking tape. Maybe he doesn’t think what he does is art at all and everyone is mistaken in calling it that. Perhaps it is more interesting than art. Perhaps art gives him a headache. He forgets what it is by not remembering what spaghetti, bubble gum, toothpaste, pubic hair, soap, aspirin, shit, and masking tape are supposed to be anyway and leaving them just that. Everything is almost like nothing. The delicate durum mess of Loop, 1993–95, is a single box of pasta, each noodle joined end-to-end; the sweet pink pustule wedged in the corner, Untitled, 1990, could be an egg sac or a boil but is bubble gum smoothed into a sphere; the calm natatorial geometry of Untitled, 1989, becomes heady when you smell its waves of minty blue; the spiral on an alabaster surface recalling Rrose Sélavy’s whirligig rotatives (Rrose herself existing only as a signature or reproduction of someone who never was) is pubic hair on a piece of soap. The clean recalls the dirty and the cure recalls the pain; remembering something out of the blue is bittersweet because you suddenly remember forgetting—entire tropicalities, whole slow bodies, tender abrasions. Friedman has carved his head, a tiny self-portrait, out of an aspirin, alleviating the throb of self while depicting it. He accomplishes an exacting, formal elegance despite his sculptures’ not being far from what they both once were and never were. In Untitled, 1993–94, Friedman’s body floats faceup against the ceiling like an ambiguous cloud of desire, a photographic suspension between hoax and miracle, which, if I have not forgotten, is where art or life is.

The body keeps returning whether you want it to or not. Try scrubbing it out. Try cleaning it up. Try making it presentable. There is always something not presentable about it. There are people and things of such presentability that you want to hurt them. It takes great restraint not to sometimes. I do not think such restraint is pretty, but I think it is important. I do not think I am alone in feeling this. There are evenings when restraining such dainty violence makes me feel closer to everyone else, often close enough to hit them.

The first time I saw a piece by Tom Friedman it wasn’t even there. I didn’t know that and I liked it anyway. I went back to see it again and there it was, a little speck of his shit, rolled into a ball, centered atop a plain white square pedestal—previously I had seen only the pedestal—and I liked it even more. It hadn’t been there before because someone had sat on the piece and taken it with him. I loved it especially then. (Replacing the piece was not a problem—there was plenty more where that came from.) At MoMA, within a few days of Friedman’s display of Untitled, 1994, a seedpod of masking-tape circles—like blisters burst—some people walked right across it. I know they did this on purpose. They thought it was so beautiful that they had to wreck it. They saw in it something so unnerving—themselves—that they had to stomp it out. They forgot it wouldn’t go away. The ambiguity is both not there—nothing’s unsure or naïf about Friedman’s technique—and there all along, and seeing his work suggests that the homemade delicacy of the ambiguous may be the metier of each of us, of everything.

Jane Bowles once described something as “so terrible and exciting somehow that I almost threw up.” That confusion erupts everywhere in Friedman’s sculptures. He maps the vertigo roiling between things as they are and are not. He has looked into boredom and found mania, things so clear they’re not clear anymore. His mesmerizing piece Everything, 1992–95, contains a dictionary’s every word. It contains “everything” and “nothing,” but are you looking at the words or the nothing between all the words?

He will show you everything being made up of nothing at all.

Things, thoughts, beauty exist because the possibility of their annihilation rubs all around them.

Bruce Hainley contributes regularly to Artforum.