Fred Tomaselli

With touchstones like exotic birds and psychotropic drugs, artist Fred Tomaselli’s intricate collage paintings open the mind to new ways of seeing.

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Fred Tomaselli

Fred Tomaselli

With touchstones like exotic birds and psychotropic drugs, artist Fred Tomaselli’s intricate collage paintings open the mind to new ways of seeing.

Fred Tomaselli is feeling a little “blitzed” today, as he puts it, a series of midnight epiphanies about his backyard garden having triggered a stream-of-consciousness mental ballet that kept him from getting any shut-eye. So now he’s battling the effects of insomnia the way countless people the world over do: with a cocktail of caffeine and nicotine. Sitting in Kasia’s, a Polish diner near his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio, Tomaselli is slouched in his chair under lace-curtained windows, drinking coffee and chewing nicotine gum. Lots of it. “I’m trying to get my head right, trying to correct my brain chemistry with more chemistry,” he says.

The impact of chemical substances—be they medically necessary or purely recreational—on gray matter has been a recurring theme of Tomaselli’s art for the past 20 years. He has meticulously assembled collages using pharmaceuticals of every size, shape and color encased under layers of resin; he has made what he terms “chemical celestial portraits in inner space and outer space,” using friends’ and loved ones’ preferred drugs, from hallucinogens to decongestants, to depict the stars in the night sky on the days they were born. He has even tackled cigarettes, which the laid-back Tomaselli, still teenager thin at 53 and habitually in sneakers, asserts were harder for him to kick than any of the illicit drugs in his past. For a piece called Dermal Delivery or How I Quit Smoking, he ripped off his daily nicotine patches and glued them into what he describes as a “flesh grid quilt.” “It was sort of a performative work insofar as I was going crazy, I was trying to quit smoking, and I was making my work out of that process,” he says of the three-month ordeal. “Then I ended up starting to smoke at the opening.”

Of course, last night he could have popped an Ambien, or even just a half, which he calls “a velvet hammer—it totally puts me out,” but, he explains, he’d taken the sleeping pill two nights in a row while visiting friends upstate and didn’t want to make it three. Articulate despite his claims to the contrary—“I’m actually pretty smart when you get to know me,” he pleads—he then launches into an exegesis of sleep studies, some of which have found that certain subjects, though seemingly asleep, had the brain activity of wide-awake people. Even weirder, in the morning they reported that they’d had a great night’s rest and felt terrific. “But their brains weren’t shutting down,” Tomaselli says. “They weren’t going into REM sleep.”

Other studies have indicated that Ambien “doesn’t make you sleep so much as it makes you forget that you were awake, that it’s an amnesiac.

“The idea is that sleep might just be a perceptual issue, that it’s as much about perception as it is about actual sleep,” he continues. “I think it’s creepy. And it’s fascinating. Well, I’m taking it tonight, for sure,” he adds with a laugh. At which point, his brain now heavily lubricated, his bespectacled eyes looking a little more focused, he segues smoothly into his work. Perception, he argues, is also at the heart of art, or at least “all good art, all interesting art.”

To be sure, Tomaselli, from the dawn of his practice, has explored the murky zone between artifice and reality. His early installations were immersive environments meant to be experienced by the viewer. In Cubic Sky (1987), still hanging in his studio, modular facsimiles of the constellations descend from the ceiling in a cluster and glow with blue stars when the room is darkened. “When I was making this, I was thinking that looking up at the heavens was man’s oldest way of turning his back on the world,” Tomaselli says. “I also got to containerize the infinite, which was funny to me. I also kind of got to be God; I got to create this universe.” His collage paintings, also known as hybrids, are similarly sensory. Brightly colored mash-ups of teeny-tiny pictures cut from magazines and books—a kaleidoscope of butterflies or snakes, for example, or human hands, eyes or mouths—and paint, the hybrids also incorporate organic material. Some are eerily calm, while others practically explode from the surface. Tomaselli’s latest endeavors—hallucinatory treatments of front pages from The New York Times—are bold juxtapositions of cold reality and formal abstraction, his way of “talking back at the news.”

Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum, where Tomaselli will be the subject of a survey show opening August 1 as well as the recipient of this year’s Aspen Award for Art, notes that his collage Red Butte appears, from a distance, to be a painting of a grassy field against a desert mountain. “When you look closely, you can see it’s marijuana leaves,” Zuckerman Jacobson says. “It’s almost like an opportunity to make sure the viewer’s paying attention, and that’s one of my favorite things about contemporary art: It gives us another perspective on our life and on our reality. I think Fred is saying, ‘Look, are you paying attention? You know, wake up.’”

It’s all too easy to pinpoint the likely genesis of Tomaselli’s fascination with visual trickery: He grew up in the shadow of Disneyland. An oft-told tale of his youth is that the first time he saw an actual waterfall in nature, he kept searching for the hidden plumbing.

The eldest of six children of Swiss and Italian immigrant parents, Tomaselli was raised in the working-class flats of Santa Ana, California, where men toiled not in the glamour world of Hollywood but primarily in blue-collar aerospace jobs. He was an altar boy—“but I was never molested,” he says, “unless I’ve repressed it”—and a born tinkerer, forever toying with go-karts and such in the garage. When he decided to go to art school, he recalls, “my father took me aside and said, ‘This is really stupid. You’re okay, but you’re not great.’ I was just like, ‘Yeah, well, f— you.’ It wasn’t crushing. I think it strengthened my resolve.” Though his mom was a “Sunday painter,” he adds, “in my background there just wasn’t a sense that you could have a life as an artist.” His parents eventually changed their minds, but Tomaselli put himself through California State University, Fullerton, by working as an auto mechanic. After graduating, he subsisted as a handyman for a slumlord while living in a seedy section of downtown L.A. He also found work sheetrocking and plastering, and later as a framer.

Though his degree was in painting and drawing, Tomaselli quickly abandoned canvases for installations, incorporating the skills he picked up from his survival jobs. “First of all, [my painting] wasn’t any good, and second, I had real ideological issues with the whole bourgeois kind of context that paintings needed—I was a punk rocker,” he says. “The small amount of people that control the discourse around painting—I thought that the whole museum world was just a bunch of phonies, and I didn’t really want to have anything to do with it. I guess I did installations, in a funny way, because they couldn’t be commodified. I sort of wanted to not participate in the market around art.”

Instead of looking for a commercial gallery, Tomaselli displayed his pieces at alternative, nonprofit spaces in L.A. In 1985 he’d lost his girlfriend, his job and his lease. He decided “if I’m gonna move, I’m gonna move big.” So he came to New York, which he’d never even visited. With rents in the East Village already out of his league, he ended up in Williamsburg, long before Manhattan hipsters were moving to the Polish-Italian, grimy neighborhood in droves, before you could even buy a New York Times there. “I couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong with it, but everybody thought it was a really bad idea,” Tomaselli remembers. “They were like, ‘How did you miss Manhattan by two miles?’ and ‘You’ll never get anybody to come over to your studio. You’re going to be one loser artist.’”

Of course, the naysayers were quickly proved wrong. Tom Finkelpearl, then a curator at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, was one of the first to head out to see Tomaselli. The work in the studio was, recalls Finkelpearl, now the executive director of the Queens Museum of Art, “very kind of funky, handmade, kinetic—like a sea of little speakers with sand in them so they’d make these noises and the sand would kind of jump. There was a psychedelic dimension, but more experiential than just visual.”

Finkelpearl gave Tomaselli a show at P.S. 1. That led to Connie Butler signing him for a project show at Artists Space. “I loved the work,” says Butler, now chief curator of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art. “It was intensely obsessive and crazy and very funny also, very smart. They were very low-tech, like some crazy special-effects guy had made them. But they were always sort of poetic and had an elegance, and I think the paintings now are extremely elegant and beautiful.”

All the while, Tomaselli had remained a Sunday painter like his mom, making “conservative, plein-air watercolors, like landscapes and stuff. And I never showed them to anybody,” he says. But in the late Eighties the two seemingly disparate practices merged. “The [installation] work I was doing at that time was using the tropes of theme parks to discuss the way reality is dislocated in our culture, while also trying to give a sort of escapist experience,” he says. “I was interested in the culture of escapism because it seemed apropos to the state we were in at the time, with Ronald Reagan being president and all. It just seemed like the ascendancy of the unreal. Then I started to think later about the premodern ideals around painting, a window to another reality, and painting as a vehicle of transportation to take you to other places. I started to realize that paintings were other worlds, that it was almost a more direct way of talking about what I wanted to talk about, and so I ended up making pictures.”

They began, he says, as “ironic paintings”: “I don’t embrace irony, but I do think it’s a pre-existing condition; we manage it as best we can.” Over time, though, he has come to accept them as paintings, pure and simple. In his most recent work, he has eased up on the coatings of resin, which had been one of his signature elements, in favor of paint right on the surface. His studio, which he sheetrocked himself, has recently been emptied out for an exhibition, and Tomaselli has started fresh with a seven-by-seven-foot panel. A giant bird’s eye is sketched out, covering most of the space, and his assistant has begun filling in paint colors mapped out by Tomaselli. With 20 concentric circles, like a target, it lies somewhere between abstraction and representation. Tomaselli goes to a stack of shallow drawers—his archives—and leafs through a sheaf of collage elements, flowers and eyeballs and such, all of which have been scanned into a computer and printed onto archival paper, readying them to be cut with an X-Acto knife and individually glued onto the collages. The digital files enable Tomaselli to play with size and hue. In another drawer he keeps his drug stash, though he hasn’t used actual pills in a while. “It was becoming something that was known about my work, and I thought I would try to keep the viewer a little off balance, so now I just use colors or dots and dashes, and they can become whatever the viewer wants,” he says. “They can become placebos if they know my work, or they can just become pattern.” The leaves that find their way into the paintings come from Tomaselli’s own garden, with the exception of marijuana, as he suspects a particular neighbor might not approve.

“Fred’s obsessive,” says novelist Rick Moody, a close friend since the two collaborated on a book for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2000. “I mean, in terms of his work, he’s completely monomaniacal, and those works are hugely, hugely labor-intensive. There’s so much precision about him and so much method that’s approached with such vigor. It was a revelation, but almost an obvious revelation, to find out that he was Swiss, because he has that kind of Swiss attention to detail. He’s like a watchmaker.”

Tomaselli admits he is drawn to the mindless part of making his collages. “I really like the busywork,” he says. “It’s sort of a weird, brain-dead kind of work. It opens up my mind and allows a lot of free associations.”

Writer Jonathan Lethem, another close friend, recalls being stunned by the drawers full of lilliputian images. “Suddenly I saw him in a very charming light as a super-overgrown stamp collector, or like the way kids learn to make collage, not as a postmodern gesture but because it’s really fun to cut things out of magazines,” says Lethem, a fellow collector. “That part of him is really alive that just really loves the world, almost the way the first thing a toddler wants to do when they find a penny is put it in their mouth and taste it. I think Fred’s reaction to stuff is rooted in that kind of intense, tangible fascination.”

Over time Tomaselli has incorporated most of his hobbies and interests into his art. The most obvious, of course, was his participation in the Seventies drug culture, before, he says, “the whole hippie transcendentalist thing fell apart [and] turned into disco and cocaine.” Critics have frequently labeled his art psychedelic, but Tomaselli says he’s not trying to re-create an acid trip. Rather, his drug history informs his work through an openness to other realities. There’s also the occasional wink, as in his use of blotter acid for his Times series. The first one began with Tomaselli doodling on the front-page picture of Bernie Ebbers on the day the disgraced WorldCom CEO was convicted of fraud. “Even though he was a wretched man, I was touched by him holding hands with his wife,” Tomaselli says, adding that it reminded him of the expulsion of Adam and Eve. “This sort of Paradise Lost seemed to have this relationship to paradises involved with taking LSD.”

A dedicated naturalist and outdoorsman, Tomaselli is a bird-watcher, a fly fisherman, a surfer and a kayaker. “I kind of have a Victorian sensibility—I don’t understand stuff until I can classify it and name it,” he says. “These things were just lying around—the drugs, the field guides—and eventually they became fodder to my work.” After years of birding, for example, he had an epiphany about the birds’ rich aesthetic possibilities. “There was just this huge variety,” he says. “It reminded me of the parallel reality when I dropped acid. This thing was just out there this whole time, and I never paid attention to it. And once I started, it seemed very magical to me.”

Tomaselli bonded with Moody and Lethem over their creative approaches but also over music. The three are members of the Brooklyn Record Club, a group of about 14 admitted music geeks who meet quarterly, usually at Tomaselli’s house. After dinner prepared by Tomaselli’s wife, Laura Miller (“a stunningly good cook,” Moody says), each member plays two songs, which everyone then discusses. MP3s are “slightly frowned upon,” Moody explains. “To be really cool at Record Club, you have to bring vinyl.”

Tomaselli and Miller’s Brooklyn set is decidedly arty, and their 11-year-old son, Desi, plays piano well and certainly knows his way around an easel. But perhaps in an early fit of filial rebellion, “he just really, really loves money more than anything,” Tomaselli says, somewhat chagrined. “I bought him some stocks one year for his birthday, and he reads the financial section of the Times every morning to see how the stocks are doing. The joke around our house is that he’s the cutest little Republican we know—he’s into guns, he’s into money, and he’s into, like, Nascar.” But there may be an upside: “He could take care of us in our old age because we know s— about money.”

Tomaselli himself is still conflicted about the commercial aspects of being a successful artist, though he has tried to rationalize that, since his paintings are in many ways about desire, it’s appropriate that they be desired. “But I still have some issues with that, especially in the last 10 years or so,” he says. “The dialogue in the art world has been way tilted towards money and status and celebrity. Now nobody’s selling any art, and a lot of nice people are going to go out of business. But there are a lot of a–holes that are going to leave too, so it’s a blessing in disguise.”

While he says works in a spring show at White Cube in London are moving respectably, he admits he’d grown accustomed to his shows selling out before even opening and to his primary gallery, James Cohan in New York’s Chelsea, having a waiting list of collectors. “Well, they can name their price now,” he says with a laugh. “They also get a chance to kick the tires and to, like, grouse a little bit, you know, ‘I couldn’t get one when things were good, now you’re coming at me on your hands and knees, huh? I want you to dance first.’”

Joking aside, Tomaselli seems to have a healthy ego when it comes to the vagaries of the art market. When one collector recently admired a Tomaselli that was not available and inquired whether he would make another in the same vein, the artist’s answer was a simple no, he doesn’t make work to order. Still, Tomaselli wasn’t offended that the collector rejected other paintings that were for sale. “He’s a guy with a lot of money. That doesn’t make him an arbiter of what’s good and what’s bad,” Tomaselli says.

Tomaselli is more concerned about the Aspen exhibition, which will travel to the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, then the Brooklyn Museum, and about what he’s going to show in the Sydney biennial next May. “I’m freaking out,” he says. “I have nothing. Starting from scratch again.” And he is determined to kick his five-year nicotine-gum habit. When his supply runs out, he’s going to try Chantix, a prescription drug that blocks nicotine from the brain’s receptors, rendering it ineffectual.

Any side effects? “Suicide,” Tomaselli deadpans before adding, “I don’t think I’m going to commit suicide. I’m very optimistic now that Obama’s president, and I’ve got an 11-year-old kid. Things are looking good.”