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Painters' Table

Barbara Friedman

Conversation with Barbara Friedman

© Elizabeth Johnson and Figure/Ground
Barabara Friedman was interviewed by Elizabeth Johnson in May, 2016.


In 2013, Mira Gerard interviewed Barbara Friedman for Figure/Ground, laying the groundwork for understanding this complex artist’s early and mid-career influences, motivation, painting processes and discoveries. We meet a mercurial painter who thinks associatively, who works by layering “emergency colors,” and who admires Freud’s auto-antonyms, or words that mean opposite things. A figure in a landscape suggests tragedy, danger and denial to her, and anxiety emerges as a driving force along with skepticism. She states, “I guess those paintings address what has always been a central concern of mine: ‘What is it that I’m not aware of?'” Thus, my interview with Barbara Friedman picks up where Mira Gerard left off – in anxiety – at the opening of Friedman’s show “Decollation” (a synonym for decapitation) at Buddy Warren Gallery in the Lower East Side of New York City, where we discuss how “losing one’s head,” anxiety, vagueness, and doubt work together to fuel a high stakes, riskier kind of painting. More of Barbara’s work can be viewed at

In the previous interview with Mira Gerard you said, “I tend to start on a piece with a vague idea that keeps shifting as I paint.” Do you perceive any changes in the way vagueness or ambiguity has become knitted into your production since then, when you were painting from portraits in the museum?

Yes, actually I do. It goes both ways. The heads and collars were central, isolated shapes surrounded by atmospheric, negative space. I would say the work is rather more ambiguous now, as I’m still not a hundred percent sure of what I’m doing when I begin, and the subject matter is more fluid and less set. I’m allowing a broader range of incidents to drift in and out of the composition, forcing me to consider the entire picture plane. On the other hand, the work is less vague because the brushwork seems to be getting more emphatic and I’ve reduced the areas that I blur. Also, the painting process itself is not vague; because, though I allow myself to freely associate and invent, I commit wholeheartedly to each discovery that tells me, “This is it.” And the truth is, that later being irritated by or feeling nagged by the painting, I sometimes change my mind, and renew the search for an even better “it.”

“Big Collar on the Lookout,” 2015, 60″ x 48″, oil on linen

“Big Collar on the Lookout,” 2015, 60″ x 48″, oil on linen

To me, the current work is more dimensional and emotional, and it resists gradual, logical accumulation of subject matter and narratives. Uneasy figures are located in a landscape, or as part of still life tableaux, or they float in air. Your collared, floating heads can seem decapitated – or just the opposite – luxuriously encircled by a crisp, pleated collar. You said you don’t think that there is a body under the collar; yet, leave the question open-ended since you are focused on this one, particular incident: thus you stave off over-analyzing your production. Vagueness that stops short of a declaration and suspends clear apprehension is very intriguing to me, as it amplifies the anxiety I’malready getting from your shifting choice of subject matter. Are you using ambiguity, movement, change, and speed to engage, transform or channel anxiety? Also, does being drawn to elliptical or round shapes, and those that branch from a center such as umbrellas, collars, tables and the tile roof, represent a site of change or rest in your painting?

I really relate to what you describe as “vagueness that stops short of a declaration and suspends clear apprehension.” Although again, that’s more a matter of ambiguity or indeterminate meaning, as opposed to vagueness, which is expressing something unclearly. The head in the collar behaves as a body’s attached head would, but also like a bodiless head. In this context, your phrase “suspending clear apprehension” reminds me of the shock of recognition I felt when I saw Yorgos Lanthimos’ movie “Dogtooth,” a film that tells the story of cloistered, adult children who are told by their father that the word “sea” means “armchair” and that a cat had killed their brother. Manipulative redefinition of common terms creates a parallel universe, but not entirely; and the grown-up kids in the film sense that something is incomplete although they don’t have the tools for finding the truth. I speak of shock of recognition, because my mother also created a parallel world of idiosyncratic definitions, leaving me with a habit, which I’m mostly grateful for, of needing to uncover and double-check facts. For a long time, I tried to make sense of dubious narratives but now I let my paintings do that for me. As I said in my last Figure/Ground interview, I’m trying to represent my own skepticism about the possibility of representation.

“Gulliver 1" 2016, 60″ x 48”, oil on linen

“Gulliver 1" 2016, 60″ x 48”, oil on linen

You seem to deal more with skepticism about meaning than with skepticism about representation, since the primal, anxious content of your paintings outweighs making the process of painting itself the primary interest. When we spoke of anxiety, you said, “I am always trying to get my bearing as a person in the world, and as a body”. Do you get your bearings only with images, which would involve representation? Or do you also orient yourself through abstraction? For example, “Gulliver 1” captures a bold design inside a figure, playing image against abstraction, and the figure certainly dominates the abstract design.

Certainly, figure/ground and representational/non-representational relationships intrigue me, as they do most painters. I often make concrete forms (heads, collars, roofs etc.) out of the painting’s negative space. Last summer, an earlier version of “Gulliver 1” was exhibited at BCB Art in Hudson, NY. That version had a large collared head floating over a town, and the painting irritated me when it returned to my studio, so I turned the white collar into a black roof, then into a patterned umbrella. Nothing felt right until the innards of the patterned umbrella became an earthbound figure, pinned down by the blue that I had used to paint out the rest of the umbrella. I liked how quickly the figure seemed to create itself and how what had been a floating, overhead presence swiftly became a heavy, oversized figure that had fallen to the earth, a Gulliver surrounded by diminutive houses. I then reworked another roof painting and turned the innards of a pink roof that hovered over two distant people into a pink-clad Gulliver landing heavily on a yellow field, transforming the two people into Lilliputians between his feet.

The tiled roof becomes a Gumby in another painting. Can you describe how you saw the tiles form a figure?

Last summer I started making paintings based on a collapsed tile roof that I came across in Greece. I was in the village that my husband’s family came from, on an island off the coast of Turkey. In my mind, that collapsed tile roof evoked the fugitive quality of shelter and my paintings of it are partly inspired by the stream of Syrian refugees that I saw crossing the island into Europe – through Greece – seeking roofs over their heads. As I’d done with the portrayals of the Big Collar, I pictured a roof flitting into unknown spaces, trying to improvise shelter wherever it went.

Gumby emerged out of the collapsed tile roof that I kept repainting. The roof’s central raised ridges seemed to describe a splayed figure. Initially, I couldn’t decide how much I wanted to literalize that suggestion. I let months go by before I returned to my first roof painting and painted the central ridge of tiles green, turning them into a splay-legged Gumby, which paved the way for the rest of the spread-legged figures in the show. The structure of the roof, its geometry, gave me permission to use loaded imagery.

“Roof with Gumby,” 2016, 30″ x 40″, oil on canvas

“Roof with Gumby,” 2016, 30″ x 40″, oil on canvas

With “Gulliver in Workout Clothes,” you say you are learning to put things in as much as learning to take them out.

“Gulliver in Work-out Clothes” was painted on top of a ten-year-old painting.  I had a friend pose in gym clothes, her legs held together by an exercise band. I was interested in depicting her as a bound Gulliver, and having this male figure from the previous version of the painting peer from between her legs. Typically, the last thing I do is edit, and through eradicating I stumble upon something that satisfies me, at least temporarily. In this case though the end process was additive as well as subtractive. The painting opened up, not only because I painted out both the old painting and the exercise band, but also because I added the house and the little made-up figure standing on my friend’s stomach.

Can you describe the experience of “letting go in stages” and how you put one foot in front of the other through a progression of images? You say, “I start tentatively then I think a painting is finished but it starts eating away at me. I push it further to make the next finish.” So you are you actually taking a leap of faith and pushing back against anxiety or doubt?

I’m always looking for the thing that will allay anxiety, the thing that doesn’t need to be interpreted. I’m really interested in the idea of “letting go in stages.” And yes, more often lately, I put one foot in front of the other through a progression of images. What’s interesting to me is that pathways of decision converge or diverge under no set pattern. I see painting motifs as having certain similarities or “family resemblances”, such that two might look alike or function alike yet there are always inconsistencies in function or appearance. The concept “family resemblance” comes from the later Wittgenstein. Instead of assuming that every group of objects called by a single name has to have a single feature in common, the alternative is that pairs of objects in the group can be similar in some ways even when there’s no definition for the universal term. A hammer is like a screwdriver in moving an object into wood, and a screwdriver is like a wrench in turning screws or bolts, and a wrench is like pliers in gripping objects, but pliers don’t have to have anything in common with a hammer*.

When I think about the various images that occur in this show, I do have to acknowledge that they make an odd family. You can say umbrellas are like collars because they’re both round, or a roof is like an umbrella because they both keep the rain off, but that doesn’t make a roof like a collar. And then the ridge on a tile roof seems to describe a splayed figure that looks like Gumby, but now we’re a long way from a collar. It’s sort of like the old game of Telephone, or a visual version of it.

“Gulliver in Workout Clothes,” 2016, 48″ x 36″, oil on linen

“Gulliver in Workout Clothes,” 2016, 48″ x 36″, oil on linen

Let’s turn back to Bay Area Figuration. How are you reconnecting to your formative years in California? Joan Brown and Elmer Bischoff, your teachers at UC Berkeley, also used the figure, bright colors, thick paint drips, and layering.

Last winter, The New York Studio School had a small, beautifully curated show of Bay Area Figurative Painting.  I was already familiar with much of the work in the show, but the exhibit felt like an important rediscovery. Those super-thickly painted Joan Brown pieces seemed fresh and meaningful in a way they hadn’t since grad school. I also recently experienced the same thrill at a show of early Elmer Bischoff landscapes.

I really like the painting “Spread-legged Baby on Collar,” it’s so joyful. How did you discover that particular figure? The paint is applied more directly than other work to date, and you build up the figure from what you find on the canvas. The use of spread legs seems less anxious here. I gather, that in integrating the figure and centralized structures, this playful figure came as a pleasant surprise.

“Spread-legged Baby on Collar” happened after many associative leaps.  The painter Susanna Coffey was making a studio visit and misread my painting “Big Collar Upside Down with Streaming Red Hair.” Susanna thought it depicted a figure with her head buried inside a giant collar, wearing a streaming red dress. I was as struck by this misreading, as I was by the incorrect definitions in “Dogtooth,” and I made a painting that corresponded to her interpretation called “Head in Collar.” Ten days before hanging “Decollation,” I pulled out “Head in Collar,” turned it upside-down, and made a spread-legged baby sitting on the top of the collar, creating the baby out of the plaid-shirted torso. I painted the baby very directly, looking at a ceramic cherub I found in my younger daughter’s room, working much in the same spirit as I had when I turned the umbrella into the first Gulliver. The baby’s spread legs also remind me of the central ridge in the roof paintings.

“Spread-legged Baby on Collar,” 2016, 60″ x 48″, oil on linen

“Spread-legged Baby on Collar,” 2016, 60″ x 48″, oil on linen

I see you inside an ever-shifting focus, building an ever-expanding vocabulary of images, as you allow ambiguity to keep your process open. Images and abstraction are never completely resolved, nor reconciled to each other: there’s always some residue of the search to “allay anxiety” that carries over to the next painting. The work is emotionally charged, absurd, but also credible, and not as lyrical as our Bay Area Figurative predecessors. Building on Bay Area Figuration after the Postmodern era, making aggressive work that reaches deeper than surface shock or beauty, you integrate the figure with roof, umbrella, and collar structures, expressing strength achieved through vulnerability, manifesting long bouts with dubious meaning as something tangible. Is figurative painting filtered through our era’s anxious, emotional, informational overload about to bloom?

I think we both are working towards that possibility.   

“Head in Collar” (small version), 2015, 24″ x 18″, oil on wood

“Head in Collar” (small version), 2015, 24″ x 18″, oil on wood

*Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, section 67:

“I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, color of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.”

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Barbara Friedman, Elizabeth Johnson and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Johnson, E.. (2016). “Conversation with Barbara Friedman,” Figure/Ground. June 11th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralon at

Painters' Table

Barbara Friedman

Barbara Friedman: Interview

Mira Gerard conducts an extensive interview with painter Barbara Friedman about her work, process, and career.

Barbara Friedman, A Little Girl (After Velazquez), 2012, 14 x 11 inches, oil on panel (courtesy of the artist)

Barbara Friedman, A Little Girl (After Velazquez), 2012, 14 x 11 inches, oil on panel (courtesy of the artist)

Commenting on her recent work Friedman remarks: "Lately, I’ve been setting up my portable easel and painting in museums, making pieces based on the paintings or sculptures there. So far I’ve worked in several museums: the Metropolitan, The Hispanic Society, and the Brooklyn Museum. In a way I start out each time behaving like an artist making copies of museum pieces; but by the time I’m finished, the result is pretty far removed from the original. Again, I’m trying to represent my own skepticism about the possibility of representation. So I’ll zero in on a Goya or a kouros figure, or maybe something by Manet, and then we’re talking about reductive strategies again – blurring, scraping, scratching, wiping – until my rendition teeters on the verge of disappearing. But I’m not just making the copy in order to make it go away again. Sometimes the blurring and the scratching let some features spring into focus coming forward from the rest... Whatever happens, the source painting threatens to become unrecognizable in my painting. So while it’s important for me to behave like a copyist in the museum, I’m also saying (or I’m telling myself) that even copying is not copying. Even what you might call passive copying is the active work of digesting and reinterpreting a work. Standing in a museum is not just taking in its appearances, because when you absorb what you see you’re also owning the experience, making it your own."


 Figure/Ground Communication

Interview with Barbara Friedman

© Barbara Friedman and Figure/Ground
Barbara Friedman was interviewed by Mira Gerard. January 23rd, 2013.

Barbara Friedman has lived and shown her work in New York City since 1983, after receiving her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and her MFA from UC Berkeley.  Also since 1983 she has been a professor of art at Pace University. She has had over a dozen solo exhibitions in New York City, most recently at the Painting Center (2012) and Michael Steinberg Fine Art (2007, 2009).  Other recent solo exhibitions include BCB Art in Hudson, NY (2010), Van Brunt Gallery in Beacon (2008), and Ober Gallery of Kent, CT (2008).  Among earlier solo exhibitions were Art Resources Transfer, Queens Museum, and White Columns (all NYC); Carnegie-Mellon University, Cleveland State University, the Roanoke Museum of Fine Arts, and the Dana Wright Gallery in San Francisco. Group exhibitions of the last twelve months include “Four Who Paint” at Valentine Gallery (Queens) and – in February 2013 – “20/20/2013” at Studio10 in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Reviews of Friedman’s work have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Sun, The Irish Times, NewsdayArt in America,ARTS Magazine, and Artweek.  A group of her paintings were selected for the 2007 issue of New American Paintings, and another group for the 2010 issue.

What attracted you to the arts?  What were your earliest experiences of making art?

From as far back as I can remember, I loved “making pictures.”  I’m not sure what attracted me to it but I did know that my mother had been an artist in her earlier years and that there was a lot of art around the house. When other kids came over they often mentioned how grossed-out they were by all the naked people on our walls.

Aside from drawing, I read compulsively, and I imagined that one day I would write books and illustrate them.  I do remember at one point learning how to draw a poodle.  I must have seen a diagram in a book.  To my surprise, all my classmates wanted me to draw them one; I felt a sense of accomplishment.

Maybe because of those poodle drawings, in third or fourth grade I was chosen to represent my class at our school’s annual “art assembly”.  My rival and I were both asked to depict an event at our respective blackboards: something like “One exciting day last summer.”  She was from the grade below mine, but I thought her drawing was much better.  To this day, I’m impressed by people who can depict an event they’re visualizing in their heads. That art assembly was probably when I first realized that I wasn’t cut out to be an illustrator.

I was the kind of kid who was clearly more comfortable working from observation.  I liked to look at people and draw them.  There was the girl who drew horses, the one who drew models, and I drew faces.

Later, when I was around twelve or thirteen, I took a few Saturday classes at the Art Students League.  It was my first experience with a nude model.  I loved it, and I loved the pastels they had me use.  When I asked my mother why the male model wore a “loincloth” while the female model was naked, she said it was both to protect the female students, and because the male body was ugly.  I’m still trying to figure that one out.

Who were some of your inspirations? influences?

I was pretty maudlin as a teenager, and I felt connected to artists like Frida Kahlo and Francis Bacon, and to movies like Midnight Cowboy, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Later, in art school, when I fell in love with the incredible versatility of paint, I couldn’t stop looking at Balthus, de Kooning, Diebenkorn, Lucian Freud, Guston, Elizabeth Murray, Alice Neel, David Park, Tom Wesselman,.  And of course Bonnard, El Greco, Goya, Manet, Matisse, Soutine, Tintoretto, Van Gogh, etc…

Today – well, the list is so very long.  I’m always looking at art.  Examples of some exhibits that come to mind as having really affected me include both the Mary Heilmann and the Carroll Dunham retrospectives at the New Museum, Paul Graham’s “American Night” at PS1, Gerhard Richter’s retrospective at MOMA, Kara Walker’s various silhouette installations, David Hammons’ pieces at L& M Arts,  Tala Madani at Lombard Freid,  Luc Tuymans at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,  Victor Hugo’s ink drawings at the Drawing Center,  Lisa Sanditz at CRG,  Pipilotti Rist’s massive video installation at MOMA and her tiny one at PS1, Katrina Fritsch at Matthew Marks, Gillian Wearing’s “confessional” pieces, Maria Lassnig’s paintings at Petzel, Leon Golub’s last paintings at Feldman, Thomas Nozkowski’s drawings at the Studio School, Kerry James Marshall in the Whitney Biennial, Dana Schutz at the Neuberger Museum, Jean-Frédéric Schnyder’s little paintings at the Swiss Institute,  Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Lisa Yuskavage’s last show.

Can you describe your first projects/exhibitions?

I had my first solo gallery show in San Francisco in 1982 at the Dana Reich Gallery, right as I was finishing graduate school.  It got reviewed favorablyI sold some work, and it felt like things would continue straight along that path.  Needless to say it’s been a far more complicated road than I could have imagined then.

All through the 1980s I was making heavily-worked shaped paintings. That was my work in the first shows I did in San Francisco and then in the shows of that decade that I had after moving to New York.  Thomas Albright described those pieces in the San Francisco Chronicle as“objects that seem diffident, casual, off-handed almost to the point of one of those mysterious, apparently functionless, discards one finds in thrift shops”; and then in Newsday, Malcolm Preston said they reminded him of frescoed panels retrieved from a once-opulent movie palace.  Maybe this was my first investigation into dislocation, lost objects.  I was trying to put objects with the look of castoffs into new contexts.  And I think that effort worked – the other thing that Albright wrote in San Francisco was, “In depriving them of preciousness … she endows them with pathos and vulnerability and, through this, a sense of magic of a new and vital kind.”

When I look back, the single biggest turning point in my career, which for me separates my “early work” from everything that comes after it, was my decision to stop making those shaped pieces.  The process of moving back to the rectangle began in 1989 and my work keeps shifting since then, and each time that it changes I’ve noticed that my audience somewhat changes with it.

Did you go to art school? If not, what did you study in school? And how did you come to art?

First I went to Beloit College in Wisconsin.  I thought I’d major in English, but I ended up doing mostly art, and graduating a year early.   After that I knew I wanted to go to an art school, but I felt I wasn’t ready to go straight to a graduate program, so I started at RISD as an undergraduate transfer student.  When I finished RISD I moved to San Francisco.  After a year of teaching French and Art, I started grad school at UC Berkeley and got my MFA there.

Could you talk about a significant success? Or a noteworthy failure that was an important turning point in your career?

I guess what comes to mind is something that happened right at the time of my move to New York, around 1983.  Before moving I made an exploratory visit to New York, and on that visit I dropped my slides off at the Artists Space slide file.  At the time Artists Space was a very high-profile place; everyone gave them their slides.

I went back to San Francisco, intending to pack up and move, and while I was still back there I got a call from Artists Space, telling me they had chosen my work to be in a “Selections” show, out of what I figured must have been thousands of artists’ slides in their registry.  I remember thinking of this as a vote of confidence, another reason for me to move to New York.

Garden of the Fitzi-Contini, 2005, 48 x 60 inches, oil on linen

Garden of the Fitzi-Contini, 2005, 48 x 60 inches, oil on linen

Do you start work with a concept or does the idea come later?

I tend to start my work on a piece with a vague idea that keeps shifting as I paint.  I find the image in the paint, then I lose it, and then I find it again.  When all is well, a conversation develops between me and the painting, and the image ends up feeling as if it made itself.  That does sound essentialist.  It sounds like I believe the image is out there and I just have to scrape through the paint to find it.  But it does make painting into a real adventure if you think that way.

Although my pieces go through many phases that I hadn’t foreseen when I started them, they nevertheless often end up addressing what I’d first thought about.  However, it feels important to me that the path to my intended goal was an unexpected one.

Can you describe your rituals or routines in the studio – i.e., daily painting vs. sporadic, music, etc.

My studio is at home, and it’s definitely my refuge.  Once I’m in the studio it takes me a while to get going and it’s even harder to leave.  When I close the door, I do feel that I’m able to shut out the mundane concerns of home life, parenting, teaching, and the rest.  But tellingly I find that I don’t close the door often enough.

For some reason I also seem to put off turning on the radio or my music playlist.  Maybe I have more concerns outside the studio than I used to, so I put off the immersion that music and a closed door facilitate.  I have to work on that, because listening to NPR or to music really does the trick for me.  For instance, one of my paintings, Someday I Will Live in the Air, is named after a song by the alt-country band The Handsome Family, that I often have on in the studio.

Can you talk about your choice of materials: what drew you to them, etc.

I love oil paint.  I probably always will.  I keep fantasizing about using acrylics, but can’t bring myself to make the change.  For about ten years, initially inspired by Johns’s Flag paintings, I used encaustic.

Occasionally I make woodcuts.  They were my part of a collaboration on a book a while back, and I had a few woodcuts appear in the New York Times.

I’ve also worked with ink on vellum and charcoal on glassine.  But I rarely use graphite, probably because my work is more tonal than it is linear.

What would you say is the impact of your personal life on your work?  What about other external influences? Place, politics, family, etc.

My personal life has had an enormous impact on my work.  No question about that.

The first example of the influence that was really clear to me was the birth of my first daughter.  After she arrived my paintings became increasingly narrative, and gender issues became more pronounced.  In their content, these paintings responded to her birth by absorbing images out of art history, from parenting magazines, from toy catalogues and pornographic magazines to Pink Bear, my daughter’s favorite stuffed animal – all in search of a language that could speak of both girl and woman, nature and culture.

Then in 1995 my second daughter was born.  And around this time I started to see the image mixtures in my paintings as dramas of displacement.   By now I had settled into working on a rectangular canvas (instead of the old shaped pieces), but that familiar painting space sort of changed in front of me.  The canvas was becoming with increasing explicitness a field in which absent objects presented themselves, and present objects found themselves, or came to themselves, in lost new surroundings.  There were very different series I made starting around 1995 that join together, in my head, around this idea of displacement.

For instance (and this is related in obvious ways to my personal life), in 1997 I had a solo show at the Painting Center of what I called the “Wet Nurse” series, my response to Linda Nochlin’s essay about the Berthe Morisot painting Wet Nurse and Baby.  Nochlin explains that the wet nurse depicted in this painting was feeding Morisot’s own daughter.  Analogously, each piece in my series depicted my own new baby in the arms of a different person, set in front of a landscape loosely derived from Morisot’s painting.  Like Morisot, I questioned what maternity and family can mean when we know the baby will pass into the world at large from one embrace to the next.

My next paintings were still about displacement, again in the vocabulary of landscape and portraiture.  The spaces in my paintings were homelands that people moved into or away from; and in the series “The Road to Cleveland” I followed a group of my husband’s family members as they moved from a tiny Greek village called Lekka to Cleveland. I juxtaposed Cleveland to the Greek village as a response to the historical accident that almost everyone who left that particular village wound up in Cleveland.  I tried to capture the jarring difference between those two homes, and yet make it believable that someone could look straight at one but really see the other, as if the two inhabited one pictorial field.

The other examples I think of are just as personal, or personal in a more literal way.  These are very recent series or sets of works, Head Grid and Last Drawings of My Mother.  My mother died in 2010, shortly before her hundredth birthday, and these pieces were made a little before or a little after she died.  The Head Gridpaintings started with one small portrait of my mother.  She had been losing her eyesight to macular degeneration, and it felt natural for me to make a painting of her that corresponded to the way she saw faces: recognizable but also slipping away.  I went on from that painting of her to seventy or eighty portraits (which I arrange on the wall in a grid), in each case picturing how the faces might appear to her.  In these panels, zeroing in on a face threatens to make it unrecognizable; my mother’s compromised vision spoke to my own skepticism about the possibility of capturing a face in painted representations.

Vagabonde, 2003, 40 x 30 inches, oil on linen

Vagabonde, 2003, 40 x 30 inches, oil on linen

I am fascinated with the way you use color – in particular, some of the strange glowing juxtapositions of saturation and value in paintings such as your Heads series.  Can you talk about that a little bit?

As a student I was told that my paintings were filled-in drawings and that I didn’t really think in terms of color.  Because I was offended, it took me a while to get what my teacher had meant.  But what’s interesting is that when it finally penetrated, color relationships in all their complicated glory became the thing I most responded to, both when I made art and when I looked at it.  I enjoy – I’ve enjoyed since art school – the juxtaposition of natural and artificial colors; but that’s as much as I theorize about it. My approach to color remains intuitive, not based on any one color theory.

An example comes to mind from my own teaching, about the thrill of color relationships.  (I’m an art professor at Pace University.)  One day in painting class I suggested that a student take a yellow element out of her painting.  Soon afterwards, I overheard another student asking her, “I love that purple area.  When did you put that in?”  Actually, the purple had been there from the beginning but had been unable to work its magic until the yellow was removed.

For a while now color has also been involved in my working process through my use of under-painting and how the under-painting relates to the paint that covers it.  I think the under-painting has reoriented my approach to color.  These days I begin by laying down a ground in a vivid hot color, one of the red or pink or yellow or orange colors that often signify emergency.  But emergency colors usually go on the surfaces of things, whereas in my paintings the warning-sign colors are covered, and they have to fight to emerge.

The first time I used a brightly-colored under-painting was with a painting calledVagabonde.   Over a magenta ground, I painted a girl in a bikini, lying in the snow on the ground below a hammock.  I called the painting Vagabonde because of the film of the same name, by Agnès Varda, in which a young homeless woman is discovered buried in snow.

Eventually, the figure in the painting annoyed me and I took her out.  I also started to take the hammock out, but I stopped midway through getting rid of it because the painting had suddenly come alive.  Although the girl in the bikini was gone, she still felt contained by the snow – a snow that was now a little rosy – but I thought the real subject matter was the bright pink that cut through the neutrals.

I’m interested in the layered interpretation that can be gleaned from your work, including references to cinema, history, and double meanings/suggestions of language.  What impulses guide the choices you make in terms of imagery and content?

I often do name paintings after movies that have stuck with me, but that’s always after the fact.  I never set out to illustrate a particular film.  What most often happens is that I notice something about the finished painting that brings a favorite movie to mind.

For instance, in the painting The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, you see an empty tennis court edged by dark trees, with a magenta under-painting that is visible through the tree branches.  That part of the image came first.  Then, after I finished the piece, I realized that it reminded me of the film by Vittorio de Sica.  A wealthy Jewish family in Italy seals themselves off on their estate until they get sent to a concentration camp.  This painting felt like it evoked that kind of denial: there’s a tennis court that we’re focusing on, but focusing on it means blotting out an entire chaotic world.

In terms of the double meanings you ask about, sometimes I come to an impossible word, a word that combines thoughts that really shouldn’t go together, and I let that guide me to juxtapositions that are going to appear in my paintings.  So for instance I’m interested in how the word “overlook” means both looking from a high viewpoint that sees everything – the house overlooks the entire valley – but also missing, neglecting, ignoring a sight.  I thought: maybe the ambiguity in this ordinary word is a hint that the all-encompassing look is also a highly selective look.  And then I thought: maybe I can make paintings that are about both the complete overview and the partial selective glimpse.

Freud was fascinated by those words that can mean opposite things, auto-antonyms.  He wrote an essay about them, “The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words.”

I recently did make a body of work loaded with references to cinema history and double meanings.  This sounds like I’m contradicting what I just said about how I don’t do such things on purpose.  But even there, most of the images preceded the references and the double-meaning words.  In that recent series, I have Alpine traumas that exist as little bubbles of figuration within large color-field abstractions.  I call this series Alpträume, German for “nightmares” – another double meaning of a sort, because the word looks like it means “dreams about the Alps.”

But if you’re talking about references, those particular paintings are probably over-determined.  I always let a lot of different concepts and influences enter into a series of pieces, and in the case of the Alpträume paintings they were able to contain all kinds of contributing ideas.  I could have named the series after a poem of Emily Dickinson’s “Our lives are Swiss,” a beautiful poem that articulates the fragility in some of those scenes.  Or I could name some movies that could be taking place in these paintings: Guy Madden’s Careful, where the residents of an Alpine village whisper for fear that their voices could set off an avalanche; Alain Tanner’s Messidor, in which two gun-toting teenage girls hitchhike through a pristine Swiss landscape; The Boat is Full, Markus Imhoof’s picture of an insular Switzerland restricting Jewish immigration during World War II.

I also should mention the drawing by Leonardo Storm in the Alps, as well as James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village.”  There is Freud’s essay “The Uncanny”; there’s that huge blue planet Melancholia in the Lars von Trier film.  And then, to go back to my personal life, there is my mother’s childhood in Switzerland, partly a pastoral bubble but mostly a vast abstraction, both the way she communicated that childhood to me and also I suspect the way she wound up remembering it.

Pink garage, 2006 36 x 27 inches, oil on linen

Pink garage, 2006 36 x 27 inches, oil on linen

It appears that much of your work is arrived at through reductive, not just additive, means – such as blurring or scraping.  Is there a guiding concept for you in the removal, or obfuscation, of an image? 

My work emptied out after 9/11.  My home and studio were then and still are about 300 yards from the World Trade Center, and my full-time teaching job at Pace is just up the street.  After 9/11, specific narratives disappeared from my paintings, and my paintings became increasingly ephemeral.  At that point the images I depicted were as much about the nature of disappearance as about their own appearing.  Under those circumstances, or given that agenda, I found that obfuscating much of a painting helped to determine its focus.

Let me give two examples.  The painting Pink Garage started out as the depiction of a suburban house.  When I swept my brush across the surface, some pink under-painting remained in the center of the piece.  I let that become the garage and allowed the surrounding structures to just about disappear.

In the painting Hang Fire, the large picture of traffic lights, the orange under-painting breaks through to become something specific, the stop color of the red lights.  Practically everything else has been wiped away.

The way you use figures within the landscape is persistently haunting.  Can you speak about the function of landscape in relation to the figure in your work?

I think about this function in narrative terms.  When I use figures in a landscape painting I am dealing with questions of danger and denial.  The figures I depict are often at risk without having the slightest awareness of the risk.  The landscape is the potential for danger that stretches out beyond the figure.  I guess those paintings address what has always been a central concern of mine:  “What is it that I’m not aware of?”

I think that’s what tragedy was supposed to make you think, especially ancient Greek tragedy.  William Wilson, the art critic, said I was a tragic painter; this is what his comment means to me.  The tragic hero would say things, and because you were in the audience with knowledge of the story about him, you knew that what he said was truer than he even realized.  “I will find out the stranger’s identity no matter what the consequences.”   “I will track down the person who endangered our city.” That’s the dramatic irony that features in all Greek tragedy.  Sitting in the audience – overlooking the events of the play, as Nietzsche said – you realize that even what the characters say about themselves, even what their words mean, is out of their control; and so you can start to wonder, “If I say I’m going home now, or I’m tired now, does that have some awful additional significance that I can’t see yet?”

For your Overlook paintings, you said that “scrutiny goes together with incompleteness of vision.”  Does this idea relate to the way that you hope for the viewer to experience your paintings?

In a sense it does.  I would certainly like the viewer to feel both the presence as well as the inaccessibility of all that has been covered over in my paintings.  The vague parts of the painting might make you want to look more closely, even if there’s no clear answer to the question “What is it that I’m not aware of?”


Can you describe what you are working on now?

Lately, I’ve been setting up my portable easel and painting in museums, making pieces based on the paintings or sculptures there.  So far I’ve worked in several museums: the Metropolitan, The Hispanic Society, and the Brooklyn Museum.

In a way I start out each time behaving like an artist making copies of museum pieces; but by the time I’m finished, the result is pretty far removed from the original.  Again, I’m trying to represent my own skepticism about the possibility of representation.  So I’ll zero in on a Goya or a kouros figure, or maybe something by Manet, and then we’re talking about reductive strategies again – blurring, scraping, scratching, wiping – until my rendition teeters on the verge of disappearing.  But I’m not just making the copy in order to make it go away again.  Sometimes the blurring and the scratching let some features spring into focus coming forward from the rest, the way that purple part of my student’s painting came to view when she got rid of the yellow part.

Whatever happens, the source painting threatens to become unrecognizable in my painting.  So while it’s important for me to behave like a copyist in the museum, I’m also saying (or I’m telling myself) that even copying is not copying.  Even what you might call passive copying is the active work of digesting and reinterpreting a work.  Standing in a museum is not just taking in its appearances, because when you absorb what you see you’re also owning the experience, making it your own.

Painting in a museum also has performative overtones, and I do think of my activity as a performance.  It takes place in public; I have to apply for a permit; the act has to observe strict regulations (analogous to the conditions required for an act to count as a promise). But where there is performance there is performance anxiety, and these conditions for museum painting, together with the way that my finished pieces confound museum-goers’ expectations, add up to make an extremely anxious situation.  About five years ago a fellow painter described some of my pieces as “anxious paintings, anxiously painted” – well, that’s even more true when I’m in a museum.

The substance of the activity is this.  I “perform,” as an artist (I act like an artist) while symbolically wearing the smock of the faithful museum copyist.  The copyist is an old trope, one often associated with “lady” painters.  I am attempting to both honor and subvert that stereotype by parking in front of these objects and yet responding to them intuitively, letting them become generative springboards. It should be noted that at some museums, like the Met, I have to get my painting stamped “this is a copy”.  That official stamp marks my painting as non-art, meaning that it’s not from the museum’s collection; I think of this as the counterpart to “Ceçi n’est pas une pipe,” an addendum that both denies the artwork’s function and let’s it take on a new function.

On the days that my copyist’s permit doesn’t allow me to paint, I do charcoal drawings instead.  On one occasion I used a sketchpad that had glassine interleaves, and when I opened my pad at home I found that parts of the image had transferred to the glassine. What had rubbed off struck me as far more interesting than the original.  Now when I complete a drawing in a museum I close the pad, stick it in my backpack, open it at home, and look for the imprint from “original” (copy) to a more original “copy.”

What’s next?

For now I’d like to continue painting and drawing in museums.  I’m still finding new ways to “copy,” or not to copy, the museum exhibits, and I want to stick with this project until it takes me somewhere new.

Some of these museum pieces are going to appear in a show I’m in (along with Kevin Curran, Paul D’Agostino, Joan Logue, Cathy Nan Quinlan and Adam Simon) which is about to open (February 8) at Studio 10 in Bushwick.  Annelie McGavin and Larry Greenberg curated this show.  As their statement says, “These artists use art history as a participatory matrix for their practice.  This exhibition also references the meta-dialogues of critical art historiography and appropriation.”

Any advice for future or emerging artists?

 Try to keep your orientation undecided.  The answer to that will come soon enough.  And it’s already major that you are deciding to be an artist at all, as opposed to so many other vocations you might have chosen.  Work really hard at being an artist but let yourself put off deciding which type of artist you are.

In studio

In studio

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Barbara Friedman
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Gerard, M. (2013). “Interview with Howard S. Becker,” Figure/Ground. January 23rd.
< >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at


Barbara Friedman

WGXC 90.7-FM

The Passage: Barbara Friedman

Radio Interview

Sep 12, 2013

Hosted by Richard Roth.


Roth: This is Richard Roth with The Passage, our monthly show devoted to the creative life. … My guest today is an artist, Barbara Friedman, who has the show up at BCB Art, Warren Street, closing on Sunday with a closing reception to which one and all are invited … Barbara, welcome. How did you happen to end up showing at Hudson here at BCB art?


Friedman: I got an email from Bruce out of the blue a few years ago (he’d seen my paintings online, I guess), and was really pleased to hear from him. We’d gone to RISD together many years ago. We were undergraduates there but didn’t know each other well … He contacted me and said that he liked what I was doing, and did I want to send him some images; and I did; and that led to my first show there.


R: Were you doing a similar kind of work when you knew each other back, way back then?


F: Well no, I was a painter and I was doing, let’s see, as an undergraduate at RISD, I was doing pretty painterly paintings of swimming pools actually, that were a little pop- inflected; also, basic color studies. Bruce was in printmaking and doing pieces that were kind of wry and a little bit conceptually oriented and if I remember correctly somewhat text-based. I remember that they were also always really funny. I liked that. But we didn’t know each other well at all.


R: And so then you went on from RISD to UC Berkeley?


F: I did. I went to San Francisco to the Bay area pretty much directly from RISD and before I went to UC Berkeley, I spent a year painting and teaching full time. I was teaching at two different private schools. I taught art and French. I did then start an MFA program at UC Berkeley but I continued teaching while I was a student.


R: And then you came back and started teaching at Pace University?


F: Yes, after I finished grad school I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay in the Bay area or I was going to move back to New York. When I said “back to New York,” I’d grown up in New York and had left when I was fourteen and always vaguely assumed that I would return someday. I just didn’t know when. So, when I finished Berkeley I was on the fence about it. But I did go back and after a few months I was offered an adjunct course at Pace University.  I took it and then a few years later that turned into a tenure track job which was great and let me remain in New York and paint.


R: So you’ve been there now for thirty years I think?


F: I have been there for thirty years, yes, exactly. It is kind of daunting but what can I say?


R: When did you start doing this particular body of work with these – I should say that the show at BCB now is based on copying paintings in museums. You have close to a dozen paintings, plus a number of drawings. When did you start doing this kind of work?


F: I guess about maybe two years ago now. The first time I actually worked on site in the museum was maybe three years ago. I’d always been very curious about …  that strange trope of the copyist and the faithful renderer or the academic hack – they have different guises – the person who goes to a museum and sets up their easel and faithfully copies a masterwork. It’s such a time-honored tradition and one that I wasn’t at all exposed to as a student. I was an undergraduate in the 70s and it was really antithetical to the way I was taught.


R: At one time was that the standard practice? You went to the museum and copied?


F: I think it was, especially in Europe. You still see more copyists, I suppose, at the Louvre than at the Met. And certainly students at the academy worked from plaster casts. Not only was I not educated in that tradition, but it doesn’t go with my personality. I tend to make pretty quick, impulsive pieces. And I am far too self-indulgent and impatient to follow a careful technique or to consider waiting for laborious glazes to set, so it is surprising that I’m even interested in the whole idea. But for some reason I’ve always been curious about why people would do that and how they came to do it.


I also associated the practice somewhat with ladies or lady copyists so there is a little bit of a feminist curiosity there too, because it obviously is not a tremendously valued practice and it has the sting of the hobbyist to it … I am also interested in what it means to paint from observation if you paint representationally as opposed to painting from photographs or from your memory.  Working from life (from observation) is a little old fashioned and academic and so I’m always excited when people do it in a way that makes it feel fresh.


For instance, right now, there is a fairly young artist named Josephine Halvorson who is painting from observation.   She tends to travel to make her paintings and she will focus on a piece of wall, for example, that tends to go ignored.  She does all of her paintings in one sitting.  I think that’s emphatically part of her practice. And then somebody like Rackstraw Downes does the same thing, of course he does much more labor-intensive lengthy paintings. Though they both seem to far prefer depicting a place that wouldn’t be considered particularly picturesque.


So, there are the people who do that, and insist on their presence, and who feel that there’s something experiential in being there and looking.  I wonder if you really feel that in their paintings.  I’m not sure you do but Catherine Murphy has that approach too.  I am fascinated by the fact that she has this painting of her husband lying on a garage floor.  She made him get back in that uncomfortable pose over and over and over again instead of just photographing him. And I wonder, is that communicated in the painting – that craziness?  I’m not sure.  Personally, I sometimes paint from photographs, sometimes out of my head, I often manipulate images, and occasionally I make work from observation. In this case I really wanted to set up strict guidelines and adhere to them and see what happened.


R: So now if you are standing in front of a Goya or Rembrandt or whatever and you are copying it, the finished product is of course not a line for line copy.  At some stage in the painting is it pretty much a representation of exactly what the painting looks like?


F: Usually they end up looking somewhat like the painting. Some of them are barely recognizable and the original source pretty much disappears, not entirely but mostly.  But generally at the beginning, they do look something like, though not exactly like, the painting that I’m looking at. I see these paintings as portraits of the sitters in many ways as much as they are about the artist that painted them. And these are pretty much all paintings of people.  There is one case in which I have three paintings made from a single painting.  One of them is much closer to the original than the others; it’s a portrait of a Dutchman. I think it it’s a Jacob Backer, a minor Dutch master. That’s in the Brooklyn Museum. I don’t think it’s in the Brooklyn Museum any more, but it was when I painted it.


There is one painting I made from the Backer that is much more faithful to what it actually looks like, and then the one with the scratched-out orange face is the same painting; and that one with the collar, there I ended up being really interested in the figure-ground flipping that occured. Again I didn’t think that would be the point of the painting but it ended up being what I was interested in.


R: Now at some point was there a lot more paint on the surface?


F: Yes, there always is at some point a lot more paint on the surface.


R: And how much time do you spend on one?


F: That’s a good question, they have tended to happen faster and faster which is a little unsettling and I don’t want it necessarily to be the case. Usually, it’s anywhere from one to three sessions. And the sessions are pretty restricted because I can only be there when the museum lets me be there. The permit is maybe for a month, two or three days a week. Three hours a day or something and I am not necessarily there all three hours.


R: And when you are painting, do people come and look over your shoulder and comment and so on?


F: Absolutely, and that’s where the performance anxiety comes in, because I’m not interested in being the snobbish painter doing something that nobody appreciates –that the general museum-going populace doesn’t get. But I’m also not interested in just doing a copy because I’m really not a copyist, I mean that’s really not my project. However, I don’t want to be mocking that tradition particularly either. I’m sort of riffing on it but not in a scathing way.


So, since I started out by painting the painting, somewhat, people might be impressed and say “Wow, that’s cool.” And they seem to like the fact that I have done it quickly. And that’s just the way I paint, so maybe they will see me setting up and then a half an hour later, there will be something that superficially looks like the painting and they like that. And then five minutes after that, I’ll eradicate it completely and I will hear gasps and then that feels weird. And then after that God knows where the painting goes and any audience there is probably not interested in the painting once I started getting interested.


In addition to having that feeling, I’m anxious because I have no idea where the painting is going either.  I really lose my audience and I am also conscious of the fact that now everybody around me thinks that I can’t paint. But what can I say? That is the trajectory.


R: So the painting is actually finished on-site?


F: Yes. I have these rules that it's got to be finished on-site. It doesn’t have to be finished in a single setting. I can let it dry; take it home. Some museums will let me leave it there. The Met is incredibly strict, but they will let me leave the painting there. And then return to it, bring it back on-site. But I won’t work on it in my studio later. I have to work on it in front of the actual piece I’m looking at.


R: How many paintings in this series have you done, do you suppose?


F: I am not sure. Let’s see how many paintings are here? There are fifteen or something like that. So, maybe I have done forty or so. I have also done tons of other head paintings, some of which are historically informed; but I didn’t do them in the museums, so I don’t count them. I do see the divide between the work that I really did on-site and other sort of portraits that were not done on-site. I also do drawings on-site.


R: Yes. Talk about the drawings a little bit too.


F: Well, on days that I did not have a permit and it is hard to get a permit, I drew in museums. Again, this is last year or so. I tried different mediums, I used pencil or watercolor. You are not really allowed to use watercolor at the Met but I also used charcoal and I found that my drawings were pedestrian and boring, just these straightforward drawings based on whatever I was looking at and it didn’t really interest me. But I did persist in doing them. I figured I would let myself paint from the drawings that I did on-site.


One day, I was using a sketchpad that a friend had given me, a pastel sketchpad that had glassine inserts in between the pages. And it was completely coincidental that I used that sketchpad, just happened to grab it when I left.  So at the museum, I did whatever drawing I was doing, closed the sketchpad, threw it in my backpack and came home. When I opened it, I realized that the imprint of the vine charcoal drawing … had transferred to the glassine, essentially becoming a monoprint. It was infinitely more interesting than the original drawing. So after that, I would deliberately do drawings in this sketchbook. Then I ordered another sketchbook like it and I would just do a drawing and try not to think about the fact that I would want to see how it would look on the glassine. I would make the drawing as I had done before and close the sketchbook, put it in my backpack and then open it when I came home. Again I would try to keep these rules and then whatever had transferred would be the drawing. And sometimes much more transferred than at other times. Occasionally it was full of finger prints or various disturbances, which could or could not be interesting but whatever it was, it was. And I did really like that mediation. So, those are the drawings.


R: And can you go and draw at the museum without a permit?


F: Absolutely! Anybody can draw at the museum. It’s a question of wet or dry media. People are really worried that, understandably, work can get ruined and I was surprised because somebody posted a photograph that had been taken of me painting at the Brooklyn Museum. They posted it on Facebook.  I had not realized the photograph was being taken, and I didn’t know that it was going to be on Facebook; and it elicited a lot of comments because I was holding a big broad brush, and I was painting from a Rembrandt, and it looked like I was a lot closer to the Rembrandt than I was. Somehow the photograph flattened the space.  It was interesting how many people on Facebook who didn’t know me remarked on that proximity, and on how terrifying it was – what could happen. The Rembrandt was covered by glass, but still it was interesting.


This made me think about my relationship to vandalism, or the subversive aspects of my activity.  And at the time there was a thing going on where there was this art heist by some Rumanians – what are the details? – one guy had given some stolen art to his mother, who’d hidden the paintings in their village. I was intrigued by that story. Then there was also something about a woman painting green stripes on different Old Masterworks. I haven’t really located myself within this framework of art stories. But there was something about them that felt relevant. Like what is my relationship to being so physically close to these pieces?


R: When you are teaching, do you have a particular technique? What do you teach?


F: I’m a pretty open-minded teacher. I don’t know how technique-based my class is. I do teach Painting I and Painting II. I have taught painting for years, but I think I encourage even beginning painters to find their own voice. And I try to give them the vocabulary for that. We start with the basics but I let them extend themselves fairly rapidly.


R: How many students do you have in a class?


F: Well, Pace theoretically sets the cap at seventeen. But we tend to allow more people to add the course. So, it could be up to twenty.


R: And do you sometimes follow students through more than one year?


F: Oh, absolutely, yes it is always gratifying to have returning students. I guess it is part of the joy of the teaching. To see them evolve.


R: And that’s something you do enjoy - teaching?


F: Oh I do, I do. I was going to say that I also love being in my studio, though right now I guess I am using the museum as my studio.


R: Now what about your earlier paintings like school buses and hammocks and things like that? Those are also painted from life?


F: No, those were mixtures. I did do some sketches on the spot, but I also took a lot of photographs. The way in which I paint makes the image disappear and reappear and morph and mutate. So, at a certain point I’m just responding to the painting. Though often I will start with an image which disappears and then eventually reappears usually in a different form, and that’s true for these paintings too. I don’t think the process is very different here. It’s just the imagery that is different, the source material.


One thing that I just touched on earlier was the idea that these were really portraits of long-deceased models.  I find something compelling about painting these subjects who are no longer alive but feel very alive. I’m not only identifying with the artists who painted them, but also with their subjects and I hope that relationship is being communicated in the works.


R: Are there painters whose subjects you find an easier connection with?


F: That’s a good question. I guess another way of putting that would be: How do I choose which paintings I make a painting of? And I leave that completely open. I tend or I have tended to work with a sort of Western canon mostly, though that could shift, but I think I just wander through certain rooms at the Met or the Brooklyn Museum. I actually loved working in the Hispanic Society as well.  And I let whatever speaks to me, speak to me.


R: When you go to paint though, have you already chosen where you are going to paint or what painting you are going to work from?


F: That’s a good question because at the Met and the Brooklyn Museum you need to identify the painting beforehand that you are going to work from. So, I do choose it before.


R: You sort of location-scout or something?


F: I totally location-scout. Totally. And then you have to apply to paint that painting and they have to make sure the room the painting is in is not too crowded and you won’t be obstructing the viewpoint of too many visitors.


Which brings to mind something else that’s interesting about this process.  At the Met, for instance, the painting that you make gets stamped with a stamp that says “This is a copy” so, I find that amusing. The seal of approval uses the language that is normally an artist’s greatest term of abuse.


R: Where do they put the stamp?


F: On the back of the painting, or rather “the copy”.  So, that in and of itself could make an interesting piece. In every museum, you are not allowed to make a painting from a painting that’s the same size as the original. Which also ensures that it couldn’t be mistaken for the original.


R: I’ve seen in European museums I think, people would make the painting smaller than the canvas. I mean there’s sort of a blank frame around them?


F: Oh that’s interesting. I guess any marker, any signifier that alerts the audience that this isn’t the original. Similar to Magritte’s painting “Ceci n'est pas une pipe”, you know.


Of course I’m only really supposed to paint the one painting but since I paint quickly, what I did at the Met, the last time I was at Met, I was only allowed to paint this one Goya, this red headed Goya, here. But I did many paintings of her. None of them looked anything like each other but that was my way around only being allowed to paint from that one painting.


R: Can you take more than one canvas at a time?


F: I don’t think most people do this, but they did let me store a few small panels in their storage room. So, I had a few on-going works.


R: Now you knew pretty early on you were going to be an artist, right?


F: Not really. I think I always loved drawing and painting and I came to it pretty naturally. I was scared to say “I’m going to be an artist.” It seemed so full of hubris and so loaded with such big expectations that I didn’t dare to say such a thing till I was around twenty. But as a kid I acted the part of the class artist, meaning that I was the one who drew, and I was the one the other kids would ask to draw something.


 I actually thought I would be a writer because I read a lot and I was more identified in a way with just reading constantly. I made the mistaken assumption that if you read constantly, you would write. That I realized later, really I like to read more than I liked to write. But I did in fact really like to draw and paint.


R: And then you decided by the time you were a teenager to go to art school anyway?


F: Well I didn’t start out going to art school, I went to a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin first and thought I might major in English, and then in fact ended up graduating early, majoring in Art, because I had enough electives to do so. But I didn’t feel in any way ready to consider graduate school. I felt I was just beginning. So, I decided to transfer as an undergraduate to RISD.


I was two years older than the rest of my classmates when I arrived at RISD because I already had a B.A. and after I got to RISD, I started following a conventional path towards being an artist and started to self-identify as an artist. But even then, it seemed so presumptuous.


I mean, it’s a presumptuous thing to assume. I guess at a certain point when I was living in San Francisco I realized, yeah this is what I do. It felt sort of inevitable. I think when I started painting, just sort of painting, I did fall in love with paint itself. So, I started to look at a lot of artists from whatever period who also really used paint with hunger and excitement. So, whether it was Elizabeth Murray, Philip Guston, Goya or de Kooning or, I don’t know, Alice Neel. I looked at them all.


R: Do you paint a lot, I mean do you paint everyday?


F: I try to, and my youngest daughter just left for college and so I am going to try to be even more disciplined about really getting into the studio or into the museum everyday. But I do teach full time, it is a juggling act, and so summers are particularly sacred.


R: You work in a city all the time or do you have a country place somewhere?


F: I work in the city. The city has my only real studio and I live in the same space as I have a studio. But my husband is Greek American, his father is from this tiny village off the coast of Turkey and he inherited a little house in that village and we do try to go there in the summer, if possible, for a few weeks and so that’s another place I paint.


R: You do different types of work there?


F: Well, at one point, it directly informed my work. I tend to work in series and narratively my work often tends to be dramas of displacement. It was very clear that most people in that little village had moved to Cleveland, Ohio, as my husband’s family had. And so for a while there I was making works that involved the idea of everybody from a certain place, in this case, that particular village, moving somewhere else; and when they were in the village, or when they were in Ohio, seeing the village. Always inhabiting both places at the same time, so I would conflate elements of both in one piece. And when I was in Lekka, the village, I would paint over Cleveland maps. That’s one time when I actually did work from observation, I would just paint straightforward views of the village from observation over maps of Cleveland or over Cleveland guidebooks, thus containing both places on one page so to speak.


R: You have any particular plans, or are you continuing this work for now?


F: I feel very involved in this work. I’m not sure what it will become but for the moment I want to keep haunting these museums and I can imagine making paintings in front of the paintings that look absolutely nothing like the paintings I’m working from. I could imagine looking at a portrait and having the painting I make become a landscape. Many of them already become total abstractions or practically total abstractions but again they have to surprise me. I don’t like working from too much of a preconceived plan. But yeah, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surfaces though here.


R: Have you shown this work in places other than BCB?


F: Yes, I was in a show in Bushwick, Brooklyn at Studio 10, a four or five person show of artists who reference art history in various ways, including a video artist who had a video portrait of de Kooning. And I also showed some of them at Valentine Gallery in Ridgewood. And I am going to have some work at Storefront Gallery, run by Debbie Brown, also in Bushwick; that show opens in December. So that’s basically some of the different venues that I’ve shown these work in. But as I said, I have only been doing them about two years.


R: Do you have any particular feeling towards Hudson River School painters?


F: Yes, actually. The series I did before this one that I showed at Bruce’s - I guess about four years ago - was overtly influenced by Hudson River painters. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I still love the train ride from New York to Hudson. I called that series “Overlook Paintings” and that’s because the word overlook is an auto-antonym, a word that means the opposite of itself.  “Overlook” suggests a negligent way of seeing, to overlook something, and of course it also means an all-inclusive look where you see everything.

My work is really about trying to figure out where I am and about trying to re-negotiate my bearings. I always feel like I’m not really seeing whatever it is I am seeing. It is all very Proustian in a way.


Those Overlook Paintings were really about seeing and not seeing and they all tended to be landscapes and often landscapes that felt like they were bit of a takeoff on the Hudson River School. Because there would be these suggestions of majestic places, projectiles, overlooks with tiny figures, looking over some vast terrain, I mean it was all very greatly abstracted. Hudson River School meets color field painting. And I actually did one painting based on an actual Hudson River painting. It was “Kindred Spirits” so, yes the landscape and the river moves me, pretty deeply.


R: You grew up as a city girl?


F: I grew up in New York City but I left at fourteen. My parents were a lot older and my father retired when I was fourteen. My mother was Swiss and wanted to return to Europe. No, rather she felt that if she didn’t live in New York City, she didn’t want to be in the United States. So, we moved to France when I was fourteen and I didn’t come back to the States until college. I had this fantasy about returning, because it was during the height of hippie-ness. I felt like I was really missing out.


R: And meanwhile you were speaking French as your daily language I guess?


F: I was, yes. Though I went to British/American schools, I didn’t go to French schools but I did speak French. I spoke French as a kid.


F: Actually after 9/11, my work started emptying out, it had gotten increasingly narrative and then got more and more pared down. It’s interesting because in 1915, Paul Klee said that as people, artists, get scared, their work gets more abstract and I certainly found this to be true for myself.


And that was the time when I would do these pared down landscape-y pieces of a hammock or abandoned chair or school bus and the narratives were implied but merely suggested, certainly not really articulated.


The first time that really happened, I was doing a painting of a girl in a bikini lying in the snow under a hammock and I was thinking of this movie by Agnès Varda named Vagabond, in which a homeless girl is found buried in the snow. But I ended up really disliking the figure, because it seemed really literal, and I painted her out. I had put a pink underpainting down before I started the painting and the pink came through and made the snow rosy. There were shards of pink that kind of formed the hammock and that was the first time that I really left the underpainting or left little pieces of the underpainting and allowed them to determine the figure and I started doing that regularly after that. And I would just take more and more out, that became my process in a way.


I mean my process in all of the work is the same pretty much, where I put down a hot color and sometimes parts of it become the positive space, I scratch into the underpainting or I let parts of it show through.


R: So for example, this painting where there is hot pink, that’s actually…


F: That’s underpainting.


R: That’s underpainting, I see.


F: The green is underpainting next to it.


R: I see. Because we get the impression that it was put on afterwards.


F: Oh, not at all. You know, when I painted that Rembrandt with the green for instance, it looked very different, then I took it all out and I scraped into it, pieces came up, you know, all of that. But I never really know what I’ll end up doing. Some of them have very little underpainting that shows through like that one. I mean it’s just a little bit.


R: How are you removing the painting? Scraping it off or wiping it off?


F: Almost always scraping. But I have different tools, I have one tool like this, it is just a scraper and then I also have tools with a rubber point.


R: And when you do that scratching, you are consciously drawing really, right?


F: Yes, some of them are much more about drawing than others, I mean in terms of the “Pink Dress”, you can see that I have changed the tools for the arms there, that is just a line drawing with the scratching into it… But again, I try not to do the same kind of things each time. What I like about the yellow one that you brought up, is that it’s not typical and that it is not scratched into.  What happened was that I really didn’t like the painting and I had a little turp with me so I used it to wipe everything away. Not because I wanted to see what would happen, but because I just wanted to get rid of it.  However, surprising things did in fact happen.  Some yellow came up unexpectedly and remained in certain places where the paint stuck. I like how, at that point, I no longer made any decisions about what it might look like and instead accepted what occurred.   I do find that more interesting… so process is really important for me.


R: Is there anything you would like for the public to know?


F: I don’t know. I can’t think of anything else. I enjoyed talking to you though.


R: Then I will just say thank you very much for joining me today, Barbara.


F: Thank you Richard, it’s been really pleasant.