Letter To Elena
Yesterday I made a visit to an artist’s studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. My friend Fred Tomaselli is a painter and collagist who has become notorious for using real drugs in his paintings – marijuana leaves, psychedelic mushrooms, Ecstasy tablets, as well as legal pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter remedies such as Pepto Bismol and Bayer aspirin. He arranges the leaves and pills and other substances in beautiful arrays, much in the manner that a child builds gorgeous artifacts out of Lego blocks, or a pointillist painter creates illusions of shimmering color by daubing paint. He also uses tiny cut-out images from magazines and books: birds, body parts, and pictures of toys and machines. These are always placed on the canvas surface with the kind of scrupulous, not to say obsessive, attention of a surgeon or diamond cutter. His work sometimes has a resemblance to Archimboldo, the painter who made human heads out of meats, vegetables, and books. Some of Fred’s pictures are abstract and some are pictorial, but in every case a close examination reveals some kind of unusual detail or image or object on the canvas. The result is fabulously beautiful. His work is celebratory, and I find it explosively happy even when the drugs or some of the other imagery takes on a somewhat ominous overtone. The paintings are full of love. I visited his studio because I’m going to try to write about his work soon, for a catalog to accompany an exhibition in Scotland, although I have no idea what to say. The trick will be avoiding the cliché of calling his work ‘transgressive’ – I think Fred’s become bored with that misunderstanding about his efforts. The drugs are a part of his life and the world around him that Fred became curious about collecting and reorganizing, and giving a new purpose. There’s no attempt to assault or dismay the viewer, and I don’t think the work is actually transgressive in any way, despite the fact that occasionally it happens to be illegal.
It was pouring rain as I approached Fred’s warehouse studio, but despite the weather, after spending a while looking at his work and talking about my plans to write about it, Fred and I decided impulsively to go out for a hamburger lunch at Peter Luger’s, a famous steak restaurant about a mile away, under the Williamsburg Bridge. Peter Luger’s, which was opened by a German family nearly a hundred years ago, is the most famous and also the most eccentric and old-fashioned restaurant in Brooklyn – and one of the most celebrated restaurants in all of New York. They grow their own beef and have a very simple menu consisting of steaks, hamburgers, and a few simple side items like creamed spinach, scalloped potatoes, and onion rolls. The point of going there is to gorge yourself on the best cow meat available in new York, as well as to savor the atmosphere. The place looks like a German inn of the previous century, or at least a New Yorker’s idea of one, with heavy wooden panelling and various decorations suggesting chivalry, hunting, the Black Forest, etcetera – shields, horns, giant brass beer steins, etcetera. The floors are covered with sawdust. The waiters are famous for their hostility and bullying, and for forcing you to order what they think is the best meal, or for sneering at you if you go outside their recommendations. This reputation is obviously something they cultivate and cherish, because they know people come expecting to be given a hard time. They never fail. For instance, when Fred ordered his burger, he made the mistake of hesitating when the waiter asked if he wanted fries. You could see the waiter get a gleam in his eye, knowing he was going to be able to exploit this. The scene went down like this:
Fred: I’ll have the burger.
Fred: Um, just the usual burger order… um…
Waiter: (Says nothing, just scowls at Fred)
Fred: Um… don’t some fries come on the side with that?
Waiter: That depends on whether you say yes or no when I ask you if you want fries.
Fred: Um, okay, sorry, yes, I’ll have the fries.
Waiter: See, now fries come with that.
The meal was incredibly satisfying – they really do have the best cows in the world hidden away somewhere, their own private supply. After eating the beef Fred and I made the somewhat self-destructive decision a person always makes after a meal at Peter Luger’s. Again, the decision was made with the assistance of some serious strong-arming by the waiter. He said “Coffee and dessert?” and we could tell he’d be enraged if we said no. Desert at Peter Luger’s is just an excuse for what they like to call ‘schlag’, which they bring in a gigantic bowl and dump all over whatever poor little piece of pie or strudel you happen to have ordered. As hard as this may be to believe, especially for you where you’re reading this letter, Peter Luger’s schlag is the thickest and most delicious in the world, I believe, and impossible not to eat until you are groaning. If you’re smart you remember that it is allowed to order ‘just the schlag’, because whatever is beneath it is really beside the point.
Afterwards we drifted out to the street, back into Fred’s car, and returned to his studio. He showed me his secret stash of raw materials – drawers full of pills, and other drawers full of envelopes loaded with tiny pictures of different flowers, and birds, and human body parts, all cut very carefully out of books and magazines with an Exacto knife. Feeling quite jolly – and perhaps just a tiny bit transgressive – Fred showed me envelopes full of tiny photographs of penises and vaginas, all about an eighth of an inch long. Then he showed me a few rare books he’d collected, including an early issue of the Harvard Review with the first articles on LSD written by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. We talked about Fred’s family, his wife Laura and their beautiful boy Desi, and we talked about our friends, and we didn’t talk about politics at all, not even the politics of art. We were high on beef, coffee and schlag, and it was an almost perfect day.
Give my best to my friends in Germany, and I’ll see you in Bonn.
* * *
Bonn Bienniale, 2003