A Retrospective

by by Claudia Norton

illustration by by Diane Zhou

My last relationship consisted of me, my boyfriend, and Tom Friedman. My boyfriend and I used to look at a book he had of Friedman’s artwork. He used to read the interviews aloud to me and I would make him stop reading so we could sit in silence and think about the ideas behind the sculptures. When I would wake up in the morning feeling anxious, he’d pick a new page from the book and show it to me, and then we would turn each other’s brains inside out. I loved most of the stuff in the book, and whenever I would see a new piece I would feel an airy feeling in the webbing of my toes. That feeling would prompt me to say something about the art and then he would say something back and then we would be shouting at each other about how simplicity and complexity are really the same thing, and then we would get over ourselves.

My relationship represented a lot for me—it showed me that I could live out my values with another person and have a really good time in the process. I didn’t think I ever needed anything else but to keep growing with him. We broke up a few weeks before I heard that Brown was receiving a Tom Friedman sculpture from an anonymous donor. I’m not sure if it was my ex-boyfriend who donated it, but I felt that airy feeling I mentioned before. I hoped the University was going to get Untitled (1992), a poppy-seed sized ball of poop on a white, cubic pedestal, or even Untitled (A Curse) (1992) that comprises a witch’s curse that occupies an 11-inch spherical space 11 inches above white, rectangular pedestal. To the untrained eye, Untitled (A Curse) looks rather vacant. I like the idea he’s getting at in that—of looking at something and it being vacant if you think so, or something being full at one time but then empty when you look at it again. Friedman once spent a thousand hours staring at a white sheet of paper. It takes a lot of trust to believe that he did it, that something is actually there. The piece of paper and all the hours is called 1,000 Hours of Staring (1992-1997). Friedman is an America contemporary conceptual sculptor who’s had solo exhibitions at the Art Institute in Chicago and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He’s well known for his labor-intensive work with mundane objects. In Untitled (2005) he made a realistic 3-D replica of his shoes entirely from paint, in Untitled (1995) Friedman connected small sections of pencils together to form a continuous loop knotted up in an 11 x 14 x 11 inch ball, in Untitled (1995) he filled a transparent gelatin capsule with a great number of tiny, colorful balls of Play Doh. Instead of those sculptures, we got Circle Dance (2009), which is a stainless steel sculpture of 11 life-sized figures holding hands and dancing in a circle. They cemented it into the grass between Waterman and Angell just after Thanksgiving.

The first day I saw Circle Dance I got scared. I had been telling people how Friedman was my favorite artist and how his work was so striking, but when I saw Circle Dance I wasn’t struck in the same way I had been with his other work. And the reflections in the metal hurt my eyes. I wondered if the intensity I had experienced in reading his book wasn’t actually meaningful, like when you are struck by the beauty of something when you’re high only to realize its banality when you’re not anymore. I was afraid that a period of my life that I folded so deeply into my identity was an illusion I had allowed myself to indulge in. I wasn’t sure what Circle Dance meant. I read online that the sculpture was modeled after Matisse’s La Danse, but I asked Tom and I learned that’s not fully true. He said that the meaning is a byproduct for him and that context determines the piece. When Circle Dance was displayed at Regents Park in London he said that he read ‘ring around the rosy’ and Black Plague. In the context of Brown, the sculpture is different.

Friedman told me, and the rest of the audience last Wednesday at his talk at the Granoff Center that he used to keep all of his works untitled so that they would remain open. He had to begin titling pieces once referencing pieces became tedious. When someone would request of image of Untitled (1997), Friedman explained, “I would then have to say, ‘Can you be a bit more specific?’” He told me in an email that he tends to title his work as the most “generic, open-ended description,” or as Untitled with a descriptive subtitle. Friedman likes interpretation. He likes it when people take control of the presentation of his work—he once made a cloud of pillow stuffing and a tiny plane of Play Doh to be suspended high up, but when it was presented through a window, with cloud and plane close up, he was thrilled.

Friedman told me that Circle Dance exists in the context of a show he did in 2007 for Lever House in New York, entitled “Aluminum Foil.” The original sculpture was very small and made from aluminum foil. Friedman explained that this piece was not born from a particular idea, but rather from a show the explored the possibilities of the material. He calls this type of piece an ‘open system,’ where he sets parameters during the work’s construction and is free to be fully creative within pre-determined boundaries. Friedman got the idea to scale up the sculpture when he was transporting it home in a blue, Styrofoam box on a bright day. He told me, “I noticed the reflection of the blue and the sun on the foil. It was beautiful. I then thought if this work could be constructed to exist outside it would reflect its surroundings.” So the piece wasn’t conceived as a public art piece, it just asked to be outside. In fact, Circle Dance is the only public, outdoor sculpture Friedman has ever made. The second time I saw the sculpture was at dusk. It wasn’t very bright outside and I could see an orange reflection of the sunset in the folds of the metal. It was beautiful to me in that light.

It’s made of stainless steel because it’s an outdoor sculpture, but before it was stainless steel is was oven-roasting pans. When Friedman made the sculpture big, he realized that oven pans would hold the wrinkles better than foil would. Oven pans also fold at a large scale like tinfoil does on a small scale, so it’s almost more like foil than foil is. And now that Circle Dance is big, people climb on it. I sat on it the other day with a friend and he fell off and scraped his arm but he’s OK. It was fun to climb on it with him and we both had the same favorite figure—the child that’s flying away. I’m pretty sure that’s everybody’s favorite.

When my boyfriend and I broke up, he gave me the book. He was angry and sad, but when he’s angry he’s still gentle so he said to me, “I really don’t want to give this up, but I think it’s best that you have it.” And it was really sad that it wasn’t ours anymore, but I was also happy to be getting the book, and it almost didn’t fit into my suitcase because it’s a decent-sized book. Circle Dance strikes me as a departure from a lot of the work in that book because the piece isn’t about a specific idea. It doesn’t lead me by the nose, and that’s confusing to me because it’s not what I was expecting. It isn’t snarky and I don’t think it’s supposed to be smart. It’s earnest and I think that makes people defensive. I’m sometimes afraid to like something that’s earnest in front of certain people, but that’s something that I’ve been moving away from. After thinking about it a lot, I’m pretty sure Circle Dance is just supposed to be there and reflect light.

It makes me sad that I’m not floored by the sculpture, but Friedman isn’t an idol. It was difficult for me to realize that I was treating Friedman’s work as a sort of validation of my connection with another person. I wasn’t interested in art until I met my ex-boyfriend. He’s the one who taught me how to mono-print, how to use power tools, stay present with my work. He’s the one that took pictures of me naked with a mask of his own face over mine. He’s the one that rented me a studio to work in and taught me to open the window when I’m using oil paint. He’s the one who helped me make my first sculpture. He’s the one who introduced me to Friedman, and he’s the one who gave me the book. So it followed logically that when I left him I left a lot more than him. For some reason, it was always hard for me to gauge how special I was to him, how real our connection was, so I paired my belief with external markers. If Friedman’s work is good, our love isn’t just chemical, it’s meaningful in and of its self. If my friends like the art I’m making, my relationship isn’t just fucking, it’s a sustainable, productive partnership that holds up to external standards.

And so, newly single, when I saw Circle Dance I became disillusioned because it didn’t bring me to my knees. The ‘if, thens’ began to work against me—I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t tell if I had lost the ability to read Friedman’s art when I lost my relationship, or if now I could put Friedman’s work into perspective. I almost didn’t go to Friedman’s talk, but then my false logic broke down. Before I heard Tom speak last Wednesday, I went to look at the piece again. After looking at its textures for a while I stepped back for a broader view and began visualizing Circle Dance as a huge version of a tiny sculpture someone made at a kitchen table. When I saw the piece like that, I got pretty excited. I had to abandon the idea that Friedman is static and that his body of work is a monolith. That realization also makes me sad. I come to question the integrity of my convictions when I slip in to the quiet vacancy of falling out of love; but I think Tom would want me to think of the structure of things as more periodic, that sometimes my love for his art can be there or not be there and it depends on my belief system. I’m pretty sure he’d tell me all I have to do is be there and reflect. After all, meanings in his work continuously unfold, that’s what I liked about him in the first place.

I met Tom for the first time at his talk and he was kind. I introduced myself, and his neck bent and his eyes got soft when he realized that I was the person who he had been speaking with over email. I don’t really understand autographs, but I wanted one. I asked him to sign my book. I had a plan to get the book jacket signed too, and send it to my ex boyfriend but I was too nervous to ask Tom to sign two things of mine—especially because I’m writing an article semi-about him and I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to accept gifts. I didn’t want to seem unprofessional or silly. So I asked him to sign the book only. Tom drew five lines that splayed outward around an empty space. Then, on the bottom of the page he wrote “Best, Tom.”

CLAUDIA NORTON B’14 is an untrained eye.