Set against the backdrop of the late 1980s New York, “Dan Friedman: Stay Radical,” now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, is a multifaceted exhibition that sheds light onto the prolific designer’s life, work, influences and his time’s sociopolitical landscape. The first-ever museum retrospective of Friedman’s remarkable yet often overlooked legacy, the exhibition features over fifty pieces, drawn primarily from the Art Institute’s collection and is set to capture his boundless creativity. In his work the past meets the present and art and design become a mirror to society.
Alison Fisher, Harold and Margot Schiff Curator, Architecture and Design, discusses the nuances of Friedman’s work, his artistic metamorphosis and his undeniable influence on the artistic subculture of New York’s East Village with Newcity’s Design Editor. As we delve deeper into Friedman’s universe—a realm where humor meets tragedy, the traditional intertwines with the avant-garde, and artistic collaborations paint a vivid tapestry of creativity—the exhibition prompts viewers to reflect on the pressing challenges of the then and the now.
For those unfamiliar with Dan Friedman, can you describe his unique style, characterized by unconventional designs across mediums such as posters, books and even furniture?
Dan Friedman is a rare practitioner whose work blurs conventional boundaries of art and design, and spans genres of art-making that are usually quite separate—graphic design, installation, furniture and assemblage art.
We are excited to celebrate his unique, genre-bending style, while highlighting the many continuities in his career, including his love of color and material accumulation, wry sense of humor, and an ever-present sense of duality in his work, which toggles between structure and unpredictability, disaster and play.
Can you talk about his transition from corporate branding to more artistic and radical work? How is this transformation reflected chronologically in the layout and curation of the exhibition to ensure a comprehensive understanding of his artistic vision?
His transition from corporate branding to more artistic work is one the most fascinating aspects of Friedman’s work and life. In the 1970s, he was on track to have a highly successful and lucrative career after teaching at Yale University and holding positions at two large design firms—Anspach Grossman Portugal and the still-dominant New York office of Pentagram. Yet he was deeply unfulfilled. Friedman was bored with his repetitive commissions and frustrated by the posturing he witnessed in commercially driven design practice. This quest for deeper meaning and inspiration came at a time when he was also beginning to openly embrace his queer identity, and he found support and community for his emerging identities in the alternative galleries and clubs of the East Village.
This transformation will be immediately apparent to visitors within the sweep of Friedman’s career because of the abrupt shift in media in the exhibition from two-dimensional posters to multimedia assemblages and sculptural furniture pieces. We address his journey most directly in the second section of the exhibition, which is an homage to Friedman’s highly customized apartment that functioned as the laboratory for his reinvention as an artist and a gay man.
Can you shed light on the influence that the artistic subculture of New York’s East Village in the 1970s and 1980s had on Friedman’s dramatic mid-career metamorphosis, especially considering key contemporaries or moments that particularly stood out in guiding his transition?
The East Village played a large role in Friedman’s discovery of his new voice in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the time, this area was run down and at times dangerous, but like many low-rent neighborhoods, it was also a haven for experimentation that attracted many young artists. Through his close friend, photographer Tseng Kwong Chi, Friedman fell in with a tight-knit group of artists, performers and musicians who participated in raucous shows and events at Club 57, a gritty arts space located in a church basement. Another key institution in the East Village was Fun Gallery—an early promoter of graffiti art by Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Futura 2000—where Friedman held his first solo show in 1984, aptly titled “Mr. D Starts Fresh.”
I think these alternative spaces provided Friedman a profound sense of freedom, allowing him to shed the strictures of his training and graphic design profession and begin forging his unique improvisational style.
Are there any specific pieces that showcase the synergy between Friedman and significant artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Tseng Kwong Chi?
The show highlights the deeply collaborative work of Dan Friedman, Tseng Kwong Chi and Keith Haring. For example, it includes examples of career-defining catalogs of Haring’s work that were designed by Friedman and illustrated by Tseng’s photographs. Another important piece in the exhibition is a unique, monumental vase—decorated with scenes of alien abduction and sex—that Haring made for Friedman in 1981. In fact, there is evidence that Friedman first encouraged Haring to begin drawing on three-dimensional objects, some salvaged from the streets of New York, thus launching a new chapter in the artist’s career.
You mentioned Friedman’s “absurdist sensibility” and his balance between humor and tragedy. Can you point out specific works within the exhibition that encapsulate this duality in Friedman’s practice?
While Dan Friedman created many works in this vein, one of the most telling is his 1985 “Three Mile Island Lamp,” for which he repurposed factory-produced lamps commemorating one of the worst nuclear accidents in U.S. history. Friedman customized these unusual objects with spray paint, raffia and strings of beads to create a new kind of readymade. Long drawn to apocalyptic scenarios of the Cold War era, Friedman was fascinated by the absurdist nature of these lamps, at once domestic and catastrophic. This project can be seen as part of Friedman’s larger impulse to expose latent contradictions in middle class American life, including their homes, furnishings and tchotchkes.
Given the pressing social and political issues that influenced Friedman’s work in the late 1980s, how do you feel his approach and messages resonate with the challenges and concerns of the contemporary world? How might visitors draw parallels between then and now?
While the pressing issues of the 1980s may be different from those we are facing today, we are drawn to Dan Friedman’s work because it represents a fresh approach to politically and socially engaged practice. Instead of adopting a cynical view of the world, he used irony and humor to draw attention to crises of the environment, racial discrimination, and the commodification of everyday life. The challenge, as he saw it, was working with a kind of radical honesty that could address the horrors and trauma of contemporary life—a feeling especially present at the height of the AIDS crisis—while still promoting wonder and optimism. For him, this was the ultimate way to be radical, a take that I think will both inspire and challenge visitors today.
“Dan Friedman: Stay Radical” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through February 4, 2024.
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