New York

Tom Friedman, Untitled, 1991–94, acrylic, press type, and ink on paper, 17 x 23 1/2".

Tom Friedman, Untitled, 1991–94, acrylic, press type, and ink on paper, 17 x 23 1/2".

Tom Friedman

New Museum

I couldn’t find precious amid the blizzard of words that composed the floor sculpture Everything, 1992–95, a piece of paper on which Tom Friedman has supposedly scrawled every word in the dictionary. But that’s the adjective—with its connotations of adorability and slightly excessive fussiness—that sprang to mind as I took in the works at his first museum survey exhibition, organized by Ron Platt of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Friedman belongs to a generation of American artists drawn to the phenomenology of Minimalism who infuse their work with a trace of the personal or quasi autobiographical. This exhibition convincingly revealed that Friedman’s elegantly spare visual vocabulary has long been counterbalanced by the dual pressures of a colorful, commodity-savvy Pop sensibility and a witty Conceptualism premised on the belief that less is a bore.

Surprise is Friedman’s friend. His art works best when the standard-issue machine-made geometric object you think you’re looking at turns out to be the result of obsessive labor—an Andre-like sculpture made of bits of masking tape or uncooked spaghetti or household dust—or when you suddenly catch a glimpse of something—a spider perched high on the wall gazing blithely at you—that reveals itself on closer inspection to be a product of fastidious fabrication. The viewer’s “gee whiz” response evinces a mild shock of cognitive disorientation. But this is no mere trompe l’oeil: Friedman’s trick is to let homey, everyday objects usher in a profound uncanniness.

Play-Doh is rolled into tiny pill shapes and then enclosed in a gelatin capsule; an aspirin is subjected to sculptural carving: Friedman’s art, like the pharmacist’s, requires fortitude, focus, and absolute precision. He is fascinated by things that touch, enter, and emerge from the human body—toothpaste, toothpicks, toilet paper, masticated bubble gum, soap carefully inlaid with a spiral of pubic hairs. In Friedman’s hands, these “impure” materials are first anesthetized and then reaestheticized. A 1992 sculpture, Untitled, makes clear how delicately Friedman balances the banal and the anal: It consists of a white pedestal, in minimalist twenty-inch cubic form, on which Friedman has placed a practically invisible ball of feces (0.5 mm in diameter, according to the exhibition checklist). In Untitled (A Curse), 1992, a neighboring piece that evokes the narcissism of small differences, a spherical curse, the caption alerts us, has been placed eleven inches above a similar white pedestal. (I saw several viewers stick their heads into the unlucky space in searching for the nonexistent sculpture.) Also on view was a work that Friedman claims took five years to create, 1000 Hours of Staring, 1992–97, a blank sheet thirty-two and a half inches square, consisting of what the catalogue calls “stare on paper.” These are in some sense Friedman’s emblematic works, testaments to endurance, vacancy, and fun. Minimalism is conceptualized, and Conceptualism is minimalized, a chiasmus that reveals a lot about the recent history of art. There’s a charming modesty to much of the work: the colorful Styrofoam balls that occupy the corner of a room, a pencil shaved like an apple peel into a graceful helix, the bubble-gum orb that looks like a brain stuck at eye level on the wall.

While these quieter works float as gracefully as a dragonfly, Friedman’s bigger, bolder more recent pieces suffer from a dispiriting density. Everything invokes its topic with witty understatement; in comparison, a 1999 sculpture, Untitled, in which nine Total cereal boxes are cut up into small squares and combined to create one large box, seems merely clever. And while “stare on paper” is a satisfyingly droll idea, a cubist-inspired sculpture of stacked sugar cubes in the form of the artist’s body evokes little more than a primitive sci-fi android. As with the self-portrait (Untitled, 2000) made of colored construction paper depicting the artist splattered on the floor, post–motorcycle accident, or the Watts Towers–like robotic shape (Untitled, 1999) built of cardboard and Styrofoam balls, the direct invocation of the body, even if portrayed in a disassembled form, is less effective than the body (and the body’s pesky needs) invoked through absence or trace. Somehow the humanoid form leads to a distracting prosopopoeia. (Two excellent photographic works offer an antidote to this tendency: In Untitled, 1996, a body—Friedman’s own?—has apparently fallen, Ana Mendieta–style, into the craggy, desiccated earth, forming an enormous crater. In Untitled, 1998, bars of muted color look like an early Minimalist painting, though even flatter. The work is an image of the artist’s body, scanned into a computer then altered so that each color pixel at the edge of his profile extends horizontally, rendering the body barely legible, a series of streaks.)

Friedman’s work was not shown off to greatest effect in the New Museum space—which, despite the best efforts of architects, artists, and curators, remains an apparently intractable challenge; the blunt rectangular layout of the show made the necessary element of surprise nearly impossible to achieve. And yet there is so much to love: Untitled, 1991–94, presents a colorful map of the United States turned upside down. Florida’s phallic peninsula juts into the Gulf of Mexico at the upper left, while the state of Washington declines to the lower right, with Northern Mexico on top and Southern Canada beneath, both in white. Onto this map Friedman painstakingly reinscribed all the place names “right side up,” so that map and language seem to be working against each other even though the names still refer to their proper places. The change is, conceptually, remarkably simple, yet the labor involved in executing it must have been more intensive than a thousand hours of staring. As with all of Friedman’s most memorable work, the viewer’s sense of perspective, orientation, and even world is jarred, overturned. It’s a precious kind of revolution.

Nico Israel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.