New York

Tom Friedman

Feature Inc.

Most of Tom Friedman’s recent works result from some extremely obsessive process: chewing endless wads of gum, separating synthetic pillow stuffing thread by thread, or stuffing black, plastic garbage bags inside one another. Friedman, who once wound pubic hair in a perfect spiral across the face of a bar of soap, transforms single, mundane materials—toothpaste, used bubblegum, tube socks—into unlikely, often absurd forms.

Artists have exploited everyday materials since Marcel Duchamp first introduced his readymades. Friedman merely domesticates the industrial supplies favored by the Minimalists and extends the obsession with the potential of nontraditional materials evident in Dieter Roth’s chocolate and cheese sculptures, Eva Hesse’s latex and fiberglass hanging works, and Joseph Beuys’ masses of fat. Hesse and Yayoi Kusama took art-making as obsession-compulsion to extremes two decades ago. Friedman’s sculptures build on this history, signaling evolution rather than revolution. In Untitled, 1991, exhibited in his last show, Friedman scrubbed the inside of a Brillo box with the Brillo pads, evoking both Andy Warhol’s seminal piece and Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning, 1953.

In this show, Untitled (all works 1992), a one-half-millimeter ball of the artist’s feces displayed on a white pedestal, recalls Piero Manzoni’s can of his own shit—albeit shrunk down to 1993 size. Friedman’s twist, here and throughout, lies in the diminutive scale of most of his works, which are both precious and all the funnier for their lack of pretense. But the recent works also demonstrate Friedman’s increased attention to phenomenology. True to the artist’s reductive methods, many works here began to stage a disappearing act: My Foot, 1991, a ruler made from memory in fact measured only 10.2 inches; a pedestal that looked empty supported a blank sheet of white paper: an almost invisible wire extended upward from the gallery floor; and the space above an empty pedestal had been cursed.

With his earlier, obsessively manipulated objects, Friedman was in danger of backing himself into a corner, producing seemingly endless variations on a theme that, though carried to inventive extremes, could easily slide from delight into tedium. The more recent flirtation with invisibility—making sculpture with a minimum of tangible, perceivable material—offers a more engaging test of both the artist’s virtuosity and the viewer’s patience. Having drawn us into his world of tiny, deliberately trivial material, Friedman’s works now don the Emperor’s new clothes. Trust me, there’s something here, announces this spare work. Having made art out of the ordinary, Friedman now seeks to convince us that he can make magic out of nothing.

Lois Nesbitt