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The first thing Fred Tomaselli shows me, as I arrive at his studio, is his 1988 piece “Cubic Sky.” It is an installation of suspended black cubes depicting the constellations. It’s hung over a bed in a spare room, and he turns down the lights so I can get the full effect; it glows in the dark.
He says he made it after moving to New York from California, because he thought New Yorkers were in perpetual bad moods from night sky deprivation. I can’t help but lie down to look at it. It is calming and humble in a DIY kind of way; I’m charmed and immediately put at ease.
Tomaselli has a relaxed, generous way of sharing his space and his work. He’s a curious, obsessive collector and archivist. He’s a naturalist and a gardener; he’s also collaborated with musicians and designed album covers. When I ask questions, he jumps up to show me things, like his photograph of dozens of birders, looking like paparazzi, all pointing their lenses at the rare Kirtland’s Warbler in Central Park. There’s an old watercolor field study that he made when he was painting in secret. His flat files are full of specimens — pressed plants as well as hundreds of images cut from magazines and books — categorized, labeled, and dated.
Tomaselli’s work of the 1980s was installation-based; like “Cubic Sky,” it often had a quirky, handmade aesthetic, but was designed to deliver an immersive, alternate experience. In the 1990s he began making two-dimensional assemblage paintings, in which an array of materials, including leaves, found images, and pharmaceuticals, are suspended in layers of resin. These collaged materials aggregate into elaborate, psychedelic patterns, and images of flora, fauna, owls, and eyes. His recent work is equally elaborate, but spins instead into painted geometries.
Tomaselli was born in 1956 in Santa Monica, California, and studied at the California State University, Fullerton. He has been the subject of exhibitions at museums including the Oceanside Museum of Art, California (2018); the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio (2016); the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (2014) and the University of Michigan Museum of Art (2014). A survey exhibition at Aspen Art Museum (2009) traveled to the Tang and Brooklyn Museums (2010); the Albright-Knox Gallery of Art (2003); and the Whitney Museum of American Art (1999). He is represented by White Cube in London and James Cohan Gallery in New York. An exhibition of Tomaselli’s Times series work opens at the Joslyn Museum, Omaha, Nebraska on February 2, 2019.
Jennifer Samet: Where did you grow up, and how did you get into artmaking?
Fred Tomaselli: I grew up in Orange County, California. When I was a kid, I was the king of the garage. I had my tools, I painted, and I kept a terrarium full of tarantulas, scorpions, and snakes that I caught in the local creek. My father had a bad relationship with tools. He would try to change a washer in a leaky sink and by the end of the day he would be red-faced and furious, banging the sink with a pipe wrench. So I learned that’s not how you fix a faucet. I learned how to be methodical. And I learned that often you have to make things, in order to have them or see them.
Most of my day jobs came out of garage work. I built custom go-karts; I worked as a bicycle mechanic. I worked my way through art school as an auto mechanic specializing in electrical systems; I was a handyman for a slumlord in Los Angeles. The woodworking aesthetic, and the skill sets like inlay and marquetry, which I picked up, hybridized into my painting practice. And I’ve been working with resin since I was a kid, shaping surfboards in California.
JS: Were there experiences with other art that influenced you early on?
FT: When I was in high school, this girl’s mom took us over to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and said, “I heard there’s some weird art in there. Have fun, kids, I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” It turned out to be Bruce Nauman’s first mid-career survey in 1974. At that point in my life, art was Michelangelo and Salvador Dalí. The only thing I could compare Nauman to was Disneyland, but instead of being the happiest place on earth, it was the most paranoid. It was full of repressed stuff you weren’t supposed to include in those environments, and it was so funny.
JS: You studied at California State University, Fullerton. Who were important teachers to you?
FT: I had two great teachers: George Herms, who I’m still friendly with, and who led by example. He was the last Beatnik: a free guy doing his thing. The other one was Eileen Cowin, who’s become a great friend. She is a conceptual photographer, associated with Robert Heinecken and the Pictures Generation. They were both influential, and they were polar opposites. One represents the California Funk assemblage aesthetic, and the other is cool and conceptual. Somehow, I feel that I eventually hybridized those two sensibilities.
JS: Can you tell me about the origin of your Times series, works in which you reproduce, intervene, and alter the front pages of The New York Times?
FT: I was influenced by Joan Miró’s Constellations drawings. I found out they were done during World War II and thought that was a soulful, wonderful thing to do. Even though the world was burning, they insist that art’s worth making. I think that might be what is at the bottom of all of this.
I’m lucky enough to be a full-time artist and it is a wonderful way to live. Still, the studio is interrupted electronically all day by the hum and whirl of calamity as it comes through the computer, the radio, and my news feeds. There is an outer world of violent chaos, and an inside world that is the paradise of being an artist. That sort of friction is something that I wanted to acknowledge.
The first New York Times piece I made was called “Guilty” (2005). I was enamored of the original photograph of Bernard Ebbers and his wife. It reminded me of Masaccio’s “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden.” I was thinking of Ebbers being pushed out of Wall Street by camera-wielding paparazzi. He’s a terrible person, but I was also struck by the humanity of him and his wife clutching hands. It was an irreconcilable feeling, so I started drawing and collaging on it. Then I decided to turn it into blotter acid, which might be the worst acid you can take. I brought it to an LSD manufacturer, and we gridded it up into blotter paper. It’s like he’s having a bad trip.
As a collagist, I work with the collective of images of others. When I’m working over The New York Times, I think of myself as being part of a slightly different kind of collective. There are the fact-checkers, the photographers, the writers, all getting together to decide what they want you to see or not see. They are involved with editing the world, and I get to be an editor in this collective world. The tropes in the work come out of another collectivity: of Asian or Islamic art, religiously inspired art, ideas about the co-evolution of man and nature, and archaic structures. The symbolism and iconography of common belief infuses these objects with meaning. It is a fun conversation to have.
I have a Tibetan thangka from the 1700s in the studio. It is so metal. There is some bad shit going on in there: demonic entities and skeletons. It fell into my life and I have it here for some dark energy. Allen Ginsberg lived upstairs and he had a black thangka there. Apparently, it exuded so much energy that he pinned a bath towel in front of it. He said it would fuck up the vibe in his house. But when he needed it, he would look at it. I live with a good one at home: “The Union of Compassion and Wisdom,” and I don’t feel the need to cover it up. I like looking at it. I get a lot of juice out of it.
JS: Can you tell me about what you’re working on right now?
FT: I’m trying to make a landscape. Recently, I worked on a geometric painting that incorporated the actual newspaper into the work. Now I’m working on a landscape with newspaper rays and a layer of resin with an overpainted cloud. I just started making resin paintings again after taking a couple of years off and it feels good.
I’m still trying to figure out what it is I’m doing here. I’m just mucking about. People might think, because my work is pristine, that I execute these things programmatically. But I really don’t. I arrive at them in an unsure and sloppy way. I change my mind a lot. A lot of the ideas come about through free association. I’m partially thinking with my hands and my fingers.
I like a lot of content in my work. I try to provide visual interest and instances worth pondering. I am attracted to pattern and decoration. I’m trying to position an eternal archaic inside an ever-changing contemporary world. The friction between the two things is interesting. The shape of nature is where a lot of the geometry starts.
JS: I notice you use that phrase — the “shape of nature.” But I’m not sure what it means; can you explain it?
FL: Well, there are six basic shapes. They are the helix, the spiral, the sphere, the hexagon, the meander, and the branch. Apparently all living things are amalgamations of those six shapes. So I figure, if that is true, those are true shapes. That is the root of many of the shapes I use in my work.
JS: It makes me think of the Hilma af Klint show at the Guggenheim. Is her work important to you?
FT: Yes, it is. I remember seeing her unveiling at PS1 in the 1980s, which included quite a few works. It was mind-blowing because there was no precedent for it. It was like a meteor that hit New York — with this insane back-story. Then it went away, and there were no books about her in English. When I had a show in Finland, I was able to pick up Swedish language books about her. I plan to spend time with the Warhol and Nauman exhibitions at the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art, and then circle back to Hilma.
JS: How would you describe your relationship to those two artists?
FT: Warhol and Nauman are the big elephants in the room that most contemporary artists have to deal with. With the Times series, I am certainly dealing with Warhol’s Disaster paintings. For a long time, they kept me in my lane and working one-to-one scale with The New York Times. Blowing them up big seemed like I was entering more into his territory, a Pop realm. But I got over it and made a show of large versions.
The Duchampian idea of the readymade as the ubiquitous condition of our lives is so prescient. Warhol was our canary in the coal mine, in that he saw media and celebrity as the readymades which defined our times. He saw where culture was going, for good or for bad. And things are pretty bad, in terms of the media, veracity, lies, and disinformation.
As for Nauman: his work, along with that of Robert Irwin and James Turrell and some other Light and Space artists in Southern California, helped shape the first part of my life as an installation artist. That’s when I made the “Cubic Sky” (1988). That led to hybrid paintings that involved psychoactive material. And now I’m in this other phase where I’m trying to incorporate the media. It’s the third big shift in my work, more or less. I’ve had a long, circuitous road of weirdness.
JS: Yes, you have a history as an installation artist, and since we are doing a “Beer with a Painter” interview, I’m curious: Do you consider yourself a painter?
FT: Yes, I am a painter. For two years, in the 1970s, I hitchhiked around the country doing field studies, plein-air drawings and watercolors of houses and landscapes. People would sometimes stop on the road and I would sell them work, and then they would keep going.
The whole time I was an installation artist, I continued to make watercolors and plein-air drawings. But I didn’t show that work to anyone. I was like a Sunday painter. I decided it was better as a hobby, and not a profession. By not taking it seriously, I was free to do whatever dumb, flat-footed thing I wanted. That was liberating. It took painting out of the realm of commerce and aspiration. It was secret, and it was just for me.
At some point in my career, I had a crisis of faith that I would be able to add anything to the history of painting. Painting is the deepest part of art history for us. I would see a Vermeer or a Picasso and think, “Why bother?” I found a way forward doing installation or performative works. I was using the tropes of theme parks. I was interested in the landscape of the unreal. At that time, Ronald Reagan was President, and it seemed like the unreal had manifested itself, at an apex. The unreal had become the President of the United States, and we were all accepting it. I had no idea how far we had left to go.
The unreal was bleeding into the counterculture. LSD was migrating out of the laboratory of uptight scientists into the mouths of proto-hippies. All of a sudden, realities were being changed from the inside, through chemicals coming from a pharmacy in Switzerland.
I started thinking, “What are paintings? What is the ideal of painting?” It is this window opening up to a new reality, where you lose yourself in a sublime space. That interested me — in terms of how it dovetailed with the rhetoric around psychedelic drugs. The next thing I knew, I was trying to create a sublime space inside of paintings. I was incorporating pharmaceuticals — but in the paintings, they were no longer available through the bloodstream. Instead, they entered through the eyeballs.
This journey has led to what I do now, which, for lack of a better word, is certainly closer to the DNA of painting than anything else. There’s concept and other things that have gotten in the way, but they all go back to painting.
JS: When you talk about the idea of a new reality opening up, it makes me think of how you’ve spoken about birds. The motif of birds runs through so much of your work. Why are birds an important symbol for you?
FT: I got into birding from my brother. We were camping and he told me we would probably see western tanagers and maybe a pileated woodpecker — and we did. I hadn’t ever paid attention to birds. So, for me, birding is a way of re-seeing the world that I was already a part of, but that I ignored. You get some binoculars and all of a sudden, this whole other parallel world opens up.
When there is a rare bird alert in the city, I don’t look for the bird; I look for the birders. I look for a bunch of people pointing their scopes at this one thing. The three “lifers” I got in the last few months (species I saw for the first time) have all been me finding the birders first. Birders can be a funny group of people. But, you know, so are artists. I guess the clubs I choose to join are full of weirdos.
JS: When I look at your work, I think about the relationship between the abstraction and pattern and the content you engage, especially in the Times series. It isn’t so much a direct comment on the political situation, even though you are using it as the raw material. Do you think about how content can be embedded in the abstraction?
FT: Yes, I think about what kind of content these paintings can handle. How much of the world do I want to put in the work? What kind of politics, what sort of social aspects is art capable of handling? You look into art history and you can find rhymes and interesting answers to that.
I don’t know that I’m making the world a better place, but I’m wrestling with questions around that. Ultimately the work needs to be ambiguous enough to resist an open-and-shut interpretation, because it’s boring when art is super-easy to reconcile.
I’m trying to make something I want to look at. Is abstraction escapism? To me, abstraction seems political right now. I go out to the galleries and I see wild-ass abstraction and it sings and it works. It feels like a person embracing life and materials, and there is a celebration of freedom and beauty that feels political in an age of celebrity, media-saturated bullshit. It is refreshing. It is a bomb in the endless assault of crappiness.
JS: As you mentioned, for several years you collaged pills and pharmaceuticals into your work in elaborate patterns. Why did you use them, and do you think you’ll return to that?
FT: I needed the crutch of loaded objects as a way to make pictures that referred to paintings but weren’t really paintings. I like the combination of the real, the painterly, and the photographic. That slipperiness of reality is interesting to me, and it worked with the subject. After a while, I started thinking of the dots almost like placebos, in the context of pills. Then I decided to remove the pills altogether and just have little discs. I had a couple shows with no pills at all, and people would still write about them. They said, “he’s putting pharmaceuticals in the work.” They hallucinated objects. So I have confused people for many years. But I haven’t put any pharmaceuticals in my work since 2005, and I probably won’t.
I’ve been interested in the double take ever since I saw an early James Turrell. I thought it was a square on the wall, and it turned out to be this limitless void. I went from laughing at it to thinking it was the coolest thing in the world. Fuck, you can put your hands in it; it goes on forever! It blew my mind: the double take. What you think you see isn’t there.
I think what great art does is it makes you pay attention. I remember when I first came to New York, I felt like I was seeing it through a scrim of Robert Rauschenberg combines. I looked at the decrepitude, the old peeling signage, and the garbage in the street in Lower Manhattan. What might have been dismissed as decayed, became really beautiful: because I was seeing it through his work. Artists can help you re-see the world.