Originally published in
     Art & Antiques
     Summer 2006
Tom Friedman, "Untitled," 1995, pencils.

Artists under the

When rising talents encounter their artist/muses,
creative sparks fly in both directions.


 Tom Friedman, "Untitled", 2004, reconfigured Cheerlos boxes.

One of the most pivotal points in the lives and careers of artists takes place when a young artist, responding to an established artist's work, feels compelled to make work of his or her own. For Tom Friedman, 41, whose sculptural works explore the miraculous material possibilities of familiar objects, this moment occurred when he was growing up in St. Louis. "I wasn't aware of any contemporary artists," says Friedman, who now is based in Northarnpton, Massachusetts. "Then one day at the Saint Louis Art Museum, I saw a portrait Chuck Close made with his thumbprint." Something about the novelty of using one's thumb struck the young Friedman, who immediately went home to make a thumbprint portrait of his brother. "It was a very literal, straightforward connection," he says. "I saw Close using his thumb, and I thought, I'm going to try that."

Years later, after seeing Friedman's first one-person show at Feature Gallery in Manhattan, it was Close's turn to be impressed. "I just flipped when I saw it," the older artist recalls. "One of the things I've been chasing my whole life is this idea of 'before it looks like art.' The first time I saw a Jackson Pollock, when I was 11, it didn't look like art yet." The same thing happened, Close says, when he saw Frank Stella's black stripe paintings in the early 1960s. When Warhol showed his Brillo boxes at the old Stable Gallery, it made the space look like a supermarket storeroom, Close notes. "To me, these are the most interesting moments in art—when it doesn't look like art yet. I had the same feeling when I went into Tom's show. Something about the work was so personal and idiosyncratic."

Chuck Close, "Fanny/Fingerpainting," 1985, oil on canvas.  
The connection between Friedman and Close relies as much on their shared attitudes toward art-making as it does on visual affinities or a corresponding world view. The child-like obsessiveness and repetitive activity required for making Close's thumbprint and dot portraits, for example, parallels Friedman's obsessive repetitious activities when making expanded cereal boxes, miraculous sculptures made of 144 pairs of tube socks and his loops of cut pencil sections glued together to form a ball.

A similar attitude toward painting also marks the relationship of Mary Heilmann and Laura Owens. Recalling the first time she met Heilmann, Owens, then a 24-year old graduate student at Cal Arts in Valencia, California, says it was that attitude, more th an her aes thetic interests, that impressed her. "Mary was very confident with her painting but not heavy-handed," says Owens, now 36, who lives and works in Los Angeles. "She had a sort of casual approach, as if anything you wanted to do, you could do it." Owens still remembers the profound impact of Heilmann's first visit to her studio. Heilmann had come to lecture, as part of Cal Arts' visiting artist program. "Mary was very encouraging," Owens says. "She was so excited and happy to see my work. I've always felt she was a very strong role model." Heilmann , who was aware that Owens viewed her as a mentor, says of the younger artist: "I think Laura's a genius."

Mary Heilmann, "Surfing on Acid," 2005,
oil on canvas.
 Laura Owens, "Untitled," detail, 2006, oil, acrylic and felt on linen.

Heilmann's paintings are geometric and abstract, But also feel organic and whimsical. "Donald Judd was a big influence," she says. "I saw Judd's sculpture at the Pasadena Museum when I was at Berkeley in the 1960s. The work looked like architecture; it was shelf-like. Then he made furniture and then I made furniture just to copy him." (Heilmann designs chairs,which she includes in her exhibits because, as she puts it, "People tend to hang around longer when they have a place to sit.") Owens' paintings, by contrast, "have a fairy-tale quality," says Heilmann. While speaking volumes about contemporary culture with their many references to natural history, Chinese screens, 19th-century children's book illustrations and old English embroidery—their collagelike feel stands in sharp contrast with Heilmann's minimalist-era toughness.

  Andrea Zittel, "Filing System, Joshua Tree , March 2004,"
  2004, gouache and pen on paper.

It's impossible to pinpoint exactly what will trigger the emotional connection leading to most mentor relationships. Andrea Zittel, an artist whose designs for contemporary living blur the lines between architecture, consumer culture and fine art, was a graduate student when Allan McCollum came to lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. At the time—the late 1980s—McCollum was making drawings, paintings and sculpture that, while unique and hand-crafted, appeared mass-produced. "Allan's work explores the fundamental reasons why people are interested in art objects, the connection between conventional art practices and human desire," Zittel says." I thought a lot about Allan's work when I was in grad school."

Still, it wasn't untl 1995, when Zittel was living in Berlin as part of a fellowship program, that she began to see McCollum as a mentor. The connection, which occurred at the opening of McCollum's show at the Galerie Thomas Schulte, hinged fittingly on the profound interplay between art and personal history. "We struck up a conversation," says the Los Angeles-based Zittel. "Within 15 minutes, we were talking about body of work Allan was making about Mount Signal in Southern California. My grandmother had a painting studio that faced Mount Signal her whole life."

Allan McCollum, "Plaster Surrogates," 1982/84, enamel on Hydrostone.
 McCollum, "Individual Works," detail, 1987/89,
enamel on Hydrocal.

"I got excited because I was planning a project about that specific mountain at that very moment," McCollum says. "To my surprise, Andrea told me that her mother's entire family had been original pioneers of Imperial County, and her grandmother had been an artist and had actually made paintings of that very mountain."

Zittel and McCollum's mutual esteem blossomed briefly into romance. And McCollum eventually curated a show that included a painting by Zittel's grandmother. Now, a decade later, they remain good friends, running ideas by each other and discussing present and future projects.

The profound importance of mentors to fledgling artists is exemplified by Chinese expatriate painter Yun-Fei Ji, who, due to the political climate in China during his formative years, found himself on a desperate search for artists whom he could emulate and gleaning whatever lessons he could from them. "Before I was an undergraduate in Beijing, I had a teacher I looked up to," says Ji from his studio in Rome, where he is currently a Prix de Rome recipient at the American Academy. "Chung jun Qu ai was an art director for films; he did costumes and lighting." Chung taught Ji, now 42, that reading a painting is like reading a poem.

Ji employs the traditional techniques of the Sung dynasty, circa 1000, and mineral inks on paper to depict scenic vistas of mountains, riversand trees. Camouflaged among the lush foliage and traditional brushwork are ghostly renderings of Chairman Mao, assorted Cultural Revolution figures, men in hard hats working on construction sites and peasant families with their belongings strapped to their backs. A recent scroll depicts the social and environmental devastation caused by the building of the Three Gorges Dam, which is scheduled for completion in 2009.

"Chung taught me how to draw," says Ji. "He was an army officer—all my art teachers were army officers. My father was in the army, so I had all of these officers giving me lessons." Another mentor for Ji was an illustrator for hand-to-hand combat manuals. Yet another was a social history painter. "A lot of my teachers were painting Chinese Revolution paintings—history paintings for the museums, the official record," he says. "They were employed by the state, and they had a lot of the training. They'd studied in the Soviet Union, at Stalinist art schools in the 1950s."

Yun-Fel JI. "The Wedding Ballad" detail, 2000, mineral pigments and ink on xuan paper.

Yet Ji's many mentors appear all the more potent for their absence. "During my childhood Mao was putting all intellectuals in prison or sending them to the countryside to reset their thinking," he says. "They were digging ditches or working in factories. You never saw the best artists' works." Every once in a while, Ji says he'd catch a glimpse of an amazing drawing. "But most artists who were very talented couldn't work during these years. It was so widespread that the great writers, translators—anyone who was even slightly critical—was labeled rightest and, in effect, silenced."

Philip Guston, "Pit", 1976. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

In the late 1980s, when Ji immigrated to the United States to earn his MFA from the Fulbright School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas, he became obsessed with the work of the late Philip Guston. "When I first got to America I was so struck by the abstract expressionists, the freedom of their painting," he says. "I wrote a paper on Philip Guston. He was a very big discovery for me. Guston has such a dark but funny sensibility. His work shows how you can be in the world and make fun of it but also love it at the same time."

Even when artists and their mentors are both still living and relatively accessible, close personal ties are not an inevitable result of these relationships. "We've spoken a number of times," says Friedman of Close. "And in 1995 he came to an opening of mine in the MoMA project room. But we've never gotten together and had a meal." In 1996, the parallels between Close's and Friedman's art-making strategies led curator Madeleine Grynsztejn to organize the two-person show "Affinities: Chuck Close and Tom Friedman" at the Art Institute of Chicago.

"I thought our works were in a really wonderful dialogue in Madeleine's show," says Close. "Tom had a dictionary piece on the floor that included every word in the English dictionary, written by hand. Then I had a piece made out of 104,000 dots, which required a million presses of the air brush on a piece of paper. My finger almost fell off."

Unaware that Friedman had once used his thumb to paint his brother's portrait, Close, obviously flattered, immediately asked for Friedman's phone number. " I do a lot of work for foundations that give prizes, money, studio spaces. In that way, I know I've been a great influence," he says. "Mentorship is much harder to assess, whether or not you've been instrumental. I know who did that for me, but I don't know who I did that for. I want to know exactly which portrait Tom saw that inspired him."

Zittel and McCollum had quite a different experience. "I often think back to the conversations we used to have," says Zittel. "One thing I learned from Allan was how to focus on one body of work at a time and carry it through to completion. My work is about simplifying things, but I have the most complicated life. It's always a precarious order. It's as if my work is saying, 'Look at me being so orderly.'"

For McCollum's part, the mentor relationship has always been more or less reciprocal. "After getting to know Andrea and her work, I never looked at a building or a room or a car or a group of people in quite the same way again. Everything in my experience of the world seemed suddenly so clearly constructed. And I have to say I haven't done anything in my work since without imagining her as a significant part of my audience and hoping for her approval."

Dorothy Spears is a former curator of Leo Castelli's
private collection at the Leo Castelli Gallery in
New York and is a member of the Friends of Contemporary
Drawing at the Museum of Modern Art