Tom Friedman changed the way I think about art. I remember being in class as an undergrad photography student at California College of the Arts in Oakland, probably in an art history lecture, and the teacher started talking about Friedman’s 1000 Hours of Staring (1992–1997). The piece, which consists of a 32.5-inch square sheet of white paper with “stare on paper” listed as the medium, exploded through my young mind. I don’t remember what the lecture was about, probably Friedman’s work along with other mid- to late twentieth century conceptual minimalist artists like Yoko Ono, Robert Morris, and Joseph Kosuth. For twenty-two-year-old me, 1000 Hours of Staring made me realize the power of language in art.
With one sentence fragment, Friedman saturated the paper with questions. Did he actually stare at it for one thousand hours? Does it matter if he did? If he did, what was he thinking about? If he was thinking about something boring, does that change how I feel about the piece? Is it a drawing or a performance, or both? All this from a blank piece of paper!
Friedman came into my life just when I needed it. Toward the end of my time at CCA, I realized that I didn’t want to make photographs. Instead, I wanted to think, talk, and write about art. 1000 Hours of Staring showed me how words—especially simple ones—can radically change the meaning of an artwork. I eventually went on to study Art Criticism and Writing in the now-closed MFA program at School of Visual Arts in New York City, and, of course, start Variable West. Friedman was by no means the only figure who inspired me to be a critic and writer, but he absolutely was a catalyst for my change in trajectory. I’ll always be grateful for learning about his cheeky, obtuse, masterpiece when I did.
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