PRINT Summer 2000


There’s an element of the science nerd in Tom Friedman, or so I would guess—the oversolemn teenager who pauses in the middle of Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, puts aside his cobblestone glasses, and says, Oh wow. This is the Friedman whose language, in his writings and interviews, is sprinkled with a vocabulary of diagrams and rules and methodologies and logics, the Friedman who sees his studio as a “laboratory” in which he plays “both the scientist and the experimental subject,” and who can say, “When I make something . . . I want to build it from the atom up.” In art, this side of Friedman has ancestors in figures like Sol LeWitt, whose rational rationale has been to fix on a procedure and follow it until the work is done—to discover its empirical result. But there is another, weirder side to Friedman’s art, and it seems to be getting more blatant as time goes by.

Some of Friedman’s works actually look like some of LeWitt’s—for example, a sixteen-inch openwork cube built up from straight-edged different-length sticks of blue polystyrene realized this year. LeWitt has based many works on the cube, but you can often figure out the system that generates them, and if you can’t, you will usually find it written down somewhere nearby. Friedman’s cube is another story: It is systematic, yes, but in the way of a maze, an intricate three-dimensional jigsaw with somewhere inside it an unreachable center. An earlier, similarly constructed work, Cloud, 1998, had a biomorphic outline and hung in midair; Friedman once described it as “a physical remnant—a diagram, actually—of a mindscape.” I don’t think LeWitt has ever been that metaphorical. The vague outer edge of Cloud—it seemed to just stop, though also to be infinitely extensible—is bounded in the new piece; every time a length of polystyrene reaches one of the cube’s imaginary defining walls, it turns ninety degrees or just ends, drawing the form in the air. If each of these works is to be imagined as the physical shape of a thought, the new one is the more incongruous of the two when you picture it inside your head.

Friedman’s work has often had a sharp-edged humorous mordancy, which, however, is usually quite subtle. But the first piece the visitor saw in his show this spring at the Feature gallery, in New York, was a kind of three-dimensional drawing made out of severed spiders’ legs rising off a sheet of paper like imperfectly flush staples. (Imagine the LeWitty instructions for this: First, catch spiders . . .) The pocket protector of our hypothetical Friedman-as-science-buff must save his shirt not from an inky ballpoint but from an X-acto knife. The idea of the surgical cut became explicit in the show’s most spectacular piece, a gutted and partially dismembered corpse that looks like a victim of Jack the Ripper but is made entirely out of thin unreinforced paper. Red paper in flat layers, cut in ripple-edged blots and whiplike lashes, draws the lake of blood in which the figure lies; and paper builds the body itself, a tortured array of multitudinous large sheets and tiny shreds, here rolled into a bruised cylinder to form an arm or leg, there seemingly just crumpled in the artist’s hands to suggest some battered fragment of viscera. An extraordinary combination of high representational calculation and the appearance of brutal accident, this fragile volume provokes a convoluted reaction, not the smallest question being, How the hell will they ship it? The precision and ingenuity of the work are a bizarre contradiction of its Grand Guignol gruesomeness. Its peculiar incitement of pity and terror, awe and giggles, is only strengthened by the fact that the figure is a self-portrait.

Setting this scenario in a room alongside a movie projector (also made of paper) and a work based on the dollar bill, Friedman may have been insinuating a thesis about connections among violence, the media, and money. Although the wry puzzles and paradoxes in which he specializes don’t always lend themselves to obvious social critique, he is not uninterested in the modern world; the gallery literature accompanying the show included a long speculative statement he had written about the effects of computer technology on the psyche, and the two other human figures he included here were both explicitly robotic. One of these is particularly wonderful: A complicated scaffolding of gray-brown cardboard that reminds me simultaneously of George Lucas and of Vladimir Tatlin, it reveals the detail with which it has been imagined only from close range. Every structural element seems to differ from its neighbor, every joint and digit to be separately designed and engineered, and the whole eight-foot-high apparatus is evenly scattered with minuscule beads of Styrofoam, as if the thing were sweating. The second sculpture, this one half the other’s height, resembles an earlier figure from 1998, made entirely of wooden cubes; now the cubes are sugar. The modular surface of the work suggests a three-dimensional translation of the gridded forms seen in crude computer graphics. The figure stands in a little circle of sugar, as if its substance were gradually sifting to the ground; while suggesting a slow corporeal collapse, this dusted ring also evokes some kind of magical transubstantiation into sweetness. You might be seeing a saint who had won himself a halo, which, however, he wears around his feet.

Looking at Friedman’s work, which will be shown in depth in a retrospective opening July 8 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (organized by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, NC), you are often made aware of the time it has taken him to make it. In one piece at Feature, he seems to have drawn a Pollock-like skein of thick abstract line, then to have cut along each side of the line (the X-acto knife again) and removed the blank paper, so that the drawing’s negative space is literally empty. As Roy Lichtenstein did in his various diligent renderings of an Expressionist brushstroke, Friedman is exploiting a tension between contrary artistic principles, one of spontaneity, the other of painstaking care. An installation in the show played out a similar contradiction. Another knife drawing, it was carved into the plaster wallboard, and was visible only close up; each line being just the width of the blade, it disappeared from any distance. Yet the shape itself was a large jagged sunburst, or perhaps one of those cartoon speech bubbles that should frame an exclamation like Zap! or Pow!, but that Friedman instead left empty. He often seems to arrive at these self-canceling oppositions, here between presence and absence, positive and negative, between on the one hand a dramatic form and gesture and on the other something approaching invisibility. Yet the result is highly productive. Like those artists a century back who were fascinated by advanced abstract ideas about a fourth dimension, Friedman is translating a virtual reality into visual reward.