Since the late 1980s, the New York artist Fred Tomaselli has been celebrated for visionary artworks made of intricately collaged images clipped from magazines and nature guides and also including, somewhat more notoriously, marijuana leaves, pharmaceutical pills and other literally mind-altering substances. Tomaselli's works were recently the subject of a ten-year survey mounted by the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, and a solo show of his work is scheduled at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo this fall. His current exhibition of new paintings is on view at the James Cohan Gallery in West Chelsea, May 9-June 21, 2003. A day after the opening, the artist sat down with me for a talk about his new work and more.
Q: How long were you working on this show?
A. About a year. Every day, most every day.
Q. Do you use an assistant?
A. One part-time assistant. I don't really know how to job out what I do; there are increasingly so many micro-decisions that are made. So there are these sort of brainless activities that I don't get to do anymore, like sanding down the surfaces. I don't really miss it, because it is brainless and tedious and hard, but sometimes I find that banality and repetition opens my mind, opens my head up and allows my subconscious sometimes to play around. But I am still pretty active, and physically engaged in my painting and source material.
Q. What is your source material?
A. Used bookstores, and magazines. My wife subscribes to a lot of different kinds of magazines and I noticed there's a lot of seductive women in there, and just beautiful people. So I just started using little bits of people -- cutting out their eyes and noses and lips. Initially, the print material I used came out of my hobbies and my desires. I always surrounded myself with a lot of field guides, I like to go out tramping around nature like a Victorian, identifying things. Having that stuff around exerted an influence. A lot of remaindered books do end up in my work. And I am also an avid gardener.
Q. Do you have a garden?
A. I do. I have actual earth. And fig trees, that's very Italian. I live in an Italian neighborhood in Williamsburg, it's pretty ungentrified still. There are still some parts that are entirely Italian. I'm working class, my dad's an Italian immigrant, I own a house, I've got a kid. There's a part of me that feels like I have one foot in old Williamsburg and a part of me that's in hipster Williamsburg. I feel like I straddle both worlds and know scores of people from both worlds, and like them, I've been there for 18 years.
Q. How do you maintain the psychedelic edge to your work?
A: I took a lot of mushrooms and acid back in the day. All that stuff for me is primarily over. I think sometimes you need a little distance from the intensity of that experience to actually make sense of it. The distillation of those experiences over time has been helpful for me, to have some clarity as to what they meant. Psychedelia was a gateway to Asian art, Tibetan art. First, the self-generated kitsch of psychedelia and Op art, but I found my way into Asian art, primarily Tibetan tankas and Persian miniatures. I was offered a form of access to those things through those visionary properties of those drugs. Looking at that art has been helpful to me.
I'm a real student of psychedelia and read a lot. I just happened to get my hands on a Harvard Review of 1963, that one with Tim Leary and Richard Alpert. I'll be speaking with one of the early pioneers of LSD, Ralph Metzner, at the end of the month in Berkeley. [The psychedelic artist] Alex Gray and I are going as the artists, with the mad scientist guy who invented Ecstasy.
A: Did you meet Leary?
Q: Yes. I think of Leary as the Hugh Hefner of the counterculture. A lot of the serious LSD researchers were against the blatant democratization of LSD that Leary represented. Basically, they felt like he had wrecked their ability to research these amazing substances, and that research has been unavailable since then. Allen Ginsberg was also very interested in LSD democratization.
Q.: So you were too young to be a hippie?
A: I'm not a hippie. I was too young. I wanted to be a hippie, but I was a stoner. Stoners are hippies without ideology. I think that's one of the things I'm responding to, this sense of failure that so pervaded the 1970s when I came of age. The '60s were over, transcendentalism and utopianism were finished, the hippies had turned into junkies, modernism had fallen into post-modernism.
I was just coming of age at a time when the world, instead of having a lot of possibilities, was having less. It was the Me Generation. I was interested in that, but I wanted to dig around in that rubble of failure and see if there was anything worth keeping or preserving. And that allowed me to investigate some of those things that people felt were debunked or finished.
Q. Do you write?
Q. But you are a passionate reader.
A. I am a passionate reader. I have a lot of friends who write, and my wife Laura Miller writes fiction. Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, Susan Orlean. . . .
Q. Back to your work. . . .
A. I don't consider my work entirely psychedelic. I've been very influenced by outsider and folk art. I'm very interested in Romantic landscapes, the Hudson River School, the German Romantics. . . . I was formed by Conceptualism and Post-conceptualism. That's how I first got into this work. As the work progressed, I think less and it's more intuitive. I think this work I'm doing right now is the result of evidence and impulses that are quite serious.
Q: Are you happy?
A: I'm cautiously happy. Part of the work comes from being relatively happy in my personal life, being in the garden, being with my wife and kid. A quiet, domestic lifestyle, it's all very bourgeois. And part of me is flipping out, watching TV, the war. I'm not at all at peace with the way things are in the world right now. I think the dissonance of the world and my present life is sort of a friction that I've tapped into in this body of work.
Q. Is that your son's portrait in a toy kingdom?
A. Yes, it's his personal utopia.
Q. What was his reaction?
A. His main criticism was that he doesn't like teddy bears. And also, "I don't have a hand growing out of my chest."
Q. What do you see in the future, with your life, your work.
A. I'm not going anywhere. I like where I'm at. I'm going to take a couple of days off before I go back to the studio. I have a lot of shows coming up in Europe, the White Cube Gallery in London, the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh. Some museums in northern Europe. Maybe Tokyo, too. I'm really looking forward to it.
Q. What happened to your signature pills?
A. I took all the pills out. I wanted to see what it would be like. I always looked at art as a perceptually modifying experience. That's how I found how drugs can alter perceptions. Since people started getting used to the pills -- at least I was -- I thought it would be more interesting to remove them and have people think that they were seeing pills from across the room. Sort of inverting the paradigms I had set up a dozen years ago. At the beginning, people would look at these dots and think they were dots and then find out they were pills, and now they see these dots and think they are pills, but they are dots. So this work is informed by what I did before, for those who know my work. I like to think the work's actually consumed the drugs, and now they're just tripping on the wall. I think the work, ironically, got trippier after I took out the pills. It used to be that I used the shape of nature and the culture of my work was usually achieved through the friction between the pills and the leaves. The soft organic quality of the leaves and the hard geometric quality of the pills.
Q. How about the marijuana leaves?
A. The marijuana leaves are removed from their original context and I just use single leaves. They're hemp, but not psychoactive. In a funny way, I've destroyed them. All you can do is look at them through your eyeballs. So they take a different route to the brain.
I wanted the shape of nature in the work. I did like the interplay between the real, the photographed and the painted. I like to keep viewers a little off balance. And it was nice to keep real things there.
I don't think I've abandoned using pills. I just wanted to see what the works would look like without them. I don't know what I'm going to be doing in my next body of work. That's one of the things that are increasingly part of my practice, being more intuitive and opening myself to the taking of all kinds of left turns. I'm a little less in control of the works -- they sort of seem to be controlling me. In that regard, I feel increasingly like a painter -- right down to the technical glazing that I do with resin. It's sort of like a Northern Renaissance technique.
Q. Is the resin dangerous to use?
A. It's not that dangerous if you take precautions. I've been using it since I was a kid making surfboards in southern California. I'm pretty conversant with the material. Most of the techniques that I use have links to my past, to things that I authentically enjoy doing. My work is not theory-dependent, and it doesn't come out of academic experience.