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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