Beyond the Drugs: Exploring the Work of Artist Fred Tomaselli


Fred Tomaselli may be best known for amassing and using copious amounts of pills and herbs in his paintings. But the Brooklyn-based artist is a collector at heart — acquiring, archiving, and assembling not only pharmaceuticals, but also images of flowers, feathers, anatomical illustrations, and other ephemera. In his classically beautiful and psychedelic paintings, he painstakingly rearranges his objects; from afar, individual items are barely distinguishable, but up close, the details are mesmerizing.

Fungi and Flowers, 2002 by Fred Tomaselli

It’s fitting that in constructing the largest survey of his work — Fred Tomaselli, a traveling exhibition that will hit the East Coast at the beginning of next year — Chief Curator of the Aspen Art Museum, Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson has channeled Tomaselli’s methods. She’s combed and re-classified his work, departing from chronology to best display the historical genres — landscape, figuration, and abstraction — that he returns to again and again. Tomaselli’s work is shown in a transformational new light, sans psychotropes.

Hang Over, 2005 by Fred Tomaselli

The exhibition closes in Aspen this weekend, on Sunday, October 11th. If your jet’s in the shop, don’t fret. Zuckerman Jacobson has collaborated with Ian Berry, Associate Director and Malloy Curator at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, to bring the exhibition east. The show will be on view at Skidmore College from February 6 through June 6, 2010, and then at the Brooklyn Museum about this time next year, from October 8, 2010 until January 2, 2011.

To tide you over till then, we have installation images of the exhibition and a few questions with Chief Curator of the Aspen Art Museum, Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson.

Installation view of Fred Tomaselli exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum. Photo: Karl Wolfgang

Flavorpill: In tandem with the exhibition, Tomaselli was awarded the 2009 Aspen Award for Art. How did this show come about and, in conjunction with it, the decision to honor Tomaselli with the award?

Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson: I’ve known Fred and been a fan of his work for a really long time. I had the opportunity to include him in a group exhibition here several years ago, called Having New Eyes. On that occasion, I was able to invite him to Aspen to give a lecture and it went very well. He enjoyed his time here; his work was well received; he was well received as a speaker.

When I was looking at the artists whose work I admire, and who perhaps hadn’t had the opportunity to have their work studied and presented in an in-depth way, Fred’s name came up. This year we were able to honor him with the Aspen Award for Art simultaneously with his exhibition.

When we are looking for an artist to award the Aspen Award for Art, we are looking for someone who has had a significant impact on the field of contemporary art, who is respected by their peers, who has had a lot of influence on other artists, and who is participating in some meaningful way or, has, in our exhibition program. So, there was really great synergy between the opportunity to organize the exhibition and the opportunity to honor Fred.

Installation view of Fred Tomaselli exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum. Photo: Karl Wolfgang

FP: What draws you to particular artists and/or work?

HZJ: I would say that the work that I’m drawn to, in general, has the ability to marry a strong conceptual basis and a strong aesthetic presence. I’m looking for the complete package, if you will, in works of art. The work by which I seem to be particularly taken or moved by is work that communicates beyond the conceptual/aesthetic level to a deeper level — an emotional level or an emotional/intellectual level — and is something that potentially has the ability to cause within me some sort of fracture, or a realization, or transposition, where I end up thinking of something I’ve never thought of before, or noticing something that I’ve never noticed before, or feeling something I’ve never felt before. I’m drawn to work that has the ability to affect the viewer in these profound and meaningful ways.

I think Fred’s work is very powerful in that there are many different opportunities for many different types of viewers and viewing experiences. His work is very detailed and layered and there’s an opportunity to interact with it and be with it on a variety of levels, both within a single viewing experience and over multiple viewing experiences. That is, I think, where a lot of the power resonates from Fred’s work — that ability to have an initial reaction and then to have a deeper and potentially more significant reaction, the more time one spends with the work.

Installation view of Fred Tomaselli exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum. Photo: Karl Wolfgang

FP: In your curatorial statement, you mention that Tomaselli is, in one way, of a generation, but his work also addresses Biblical and cosmic themes.

HZJ: You know, I think that Fred made a choice when he decided to include legal and illegal drugs in his work. And, for awhile, I think that’s sort-of how he was known — as the artist who uses drugs in his work. Because that was a single defining moment and a unique choice of medium, I think for some people, their experience of Fred’s work starts and ends right there.

I think that one of the goals of this exhibition is to say, yes, that’s a fact, that’s a given, let’s put that to the side, and move beyond that. One of the things I was really interested in this exhibition was to share with a wide variety of viewers the intellectual basis and the diverse taxonomies that Fred utilizes to create these works. And so, this exhibition is organized around art historical genres: landscape, figuration, and abstraction. Grouping works together within these taxonomies, rather than chronologically or based on their use of medium, creates an opportunity to find new things within Fred’s work. And, Fred is a big thinker. He’s a man of big ideas and the works represent a lot of his interests and his life commitments.

Installation view of Fred Tomaselli exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum. Photo: Karl Wolfgang

FP: His work is also gorgeous. How do you feel about the role of “sheer beauty”?

HZJ: I think it’s essential. I think that beauty is clearly seductive: we see that not just in art, we see that in society. And I think that Fred utilizes that attraction to beauty to draw viewers in and to create the opportunity to potentially go beyond that. To go beyond that doesn’t, in any way, diminish or dismiss the attraction or seductiveness of beauty. It just serves as a facilitator for, “I’m getting the viewer to let down their guard and to step into a space of comfort to then have the opportunity to potentially become uncomfortable.” As you look, you might find something that’s jarring or disjointed or unexpected. It’s through this ability to shift from a place of comfort to discomfort that the possibility of transcendence might occur.

More on the artist and the exhibition can be found in Fred Tomaselli’s Magical Surrealism.