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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.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at