The American artist Tom Friedman speaks to Rick Slater about the creation of his piece, 11 x 22 x .005, which was auctioned in 2012 by Christie’s Auction House for $32,500. His conceptual sculptures employ everyday materials, such as sugar cubes, pencils, soap and aspirin. He has exhibited his work worldwide. This piece is an erased centerfold from a girlie magazine.
THE BELIEVER: What was it specifically about this particular centerfold that made you say, this is what I am going to do…
TOM FRIEDMAN: Erase it?
BLVR: Yeah. This was the December 1992 centerfold, from what I can gather.
TF: Yeah, that was important. December is kind of the quintessential “snow-winter” kind of thing. February is more associated with Valentine’s Day, so December seemed to be the right choice of month. The title of the piece—11 x 22 x .005—those are the dimensions of the piece of paper, so it was a kind of a way of objectifying the piece of paper. You know, as another way of bringing it back to the object itself, and as a play on the measurements of the model—so I gave the measurements of the piece of paper. At that time, I was into ritualizing my process. I had done pieces with collecting eraser shavings, re-rolling a roll of toilet paper, chewing the bubblegum, and so this was a ritualizing of the process, but it was also a play on masturbation.
BLVR: I’m glad you said that, because I was thinking, how do I bring that up? I mean I know this has to do with masturbation in some way.
TF: Right, yeah.
BLVR: I was thinking about its creation—and I swear I didn’t think about this too much—there’s this guy sitting there moving his arm back and forth erasing, y’know? There has to be a thing there…
TF: And then the masturbation and the white of the paper also comes back to the, y’know, semen, so like I said, it was kind of playing with the circular logic, and then it’s pinned up on the wall like a pin-up.
BLVR: I’ve seen centerfolds before, so I knew what was there before, even if I haven’t seen that one.
TF: Yeah, I mean, art plays upon peoples’ memories—their familiarity with things. Especially now because when you watch South Park, Family Guy and those sort of shows where there are all sorts of cultural references, and it’s sort of layered upon layer, and if you don’t know the references you might not get it, but the more you know, the greater it becomes. Just like with art, the more you see it and know about it, the more multi-dimensional a piece can become. I mean, you never really see the actuality of something, it’s all referenced in our memory.
BLVR: Is your work about making the viewer look at familiar objects differently?
TF: That’s a byproduct of it. I think it might stimulate the creative part of one’s brain, which is important. There are a lot of reasons for beginning with something familiar and taking it to the unfamiliar, and making it like a puzzle. What is this made out of? And how did it get from there to here?
BLVR: I read an interview between you and John Waters in which he expressed surprise that you had erased an actual centerfold. He thought it was just you claiming you erased one. Does it ever surprise you when people question the piece’s veracity?
TF: No. I think that’s a part of the piece, since the information, the documentation, the proof is not there. You have to take it at face value.
BLVR: But with 11 x 22 x .005, you included the eraser. I know that doesn’t necessarily prove anything…
TF: It’s funny, the eraser was never meant to be included in it. But what I think happened was the collector who originally bought it—I said, You can see the eraser, this is the eraser. It was more like a token thing. It was not meant to be part of it. But then people, you know, information gets mangled and the collector took it upon themselves, thinking it would be nice to include the eraser, and then I guess it became a part of the piece. It was never meant to be. It was meant to be a separate thing.
BLVR: Does the viewer’s trust matter? If I’m questioning whether it’s real or not…
TF: I’m very interested in what people look through, cause we have many filters that we sort of look through to other things. We look through our beliefs, we look through our assumptions, our personal history, our ideologies, all that stuff, so it became a way of using a belief system to talk about something or nothing. Like when I created the piece with a cursed space above the pedestal, if you believed it was there, it was there; if you didn’t, there was nothing there. I find that really interesting. I think it’s hard for people to deal with the idea of absence and nothingness. They find that a negative thing. It’s associated with nihilism and stuff like that. But I’ve always been dealing with the vanishing of something. Going from something to nothing, or nothing to something.
BLVR: How long did it take to erase the piece?
TF: About a week or so. It took me a couple times. If you’re erasing, you’ll crinkle the paper. I sort of figured out what my limitations were. I can’t get that vigorous in the process. I sort of have to slow it down.
BLVR: [Laughs] Sorry. Given what we were talking about earlier, I have to laugh.
TF: You know, when I was talking about this piece in a slide show in London, England, they made note that an eraser there is not called an eraser, it’s called a rubber. So I found that interesting…
BLVR: I wonder if it bothers you that people may not have the patience to really look and think about 11 x 22 x .005, beyond their initial reaction to the piece.
TF: It doesn’t bother me, it’s just the nature of the subjective in people. Some people will look at my work and just take away the craft, but there’s also the issue of play and the lightness—the seeming lightness—of the ideas, which kind of goes against the idea that the interesting or the deep or the important have to be dark and convoluted and hard to understand.