Painting, Poetry, Blues and Cadavers
Andy Friedman studies it all in pursuit of art.
You’ve seen his work. Andy Friedman’s illustrations are everywhere: Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and many more. His art, however, is not limited to the visual. He’s given numerous poetry performances around the country, and only started touring as a musician after learning to play the guitar in 2005. Since then, he’s released three records. He’s currently working on a new album, along with a series of paintings and a collection of stories, all while keeping up the magazine illustration work. We sat down with him to hear about it all.
You’re a multifaceted artist. Tell us a bit about the work you do and your approach to it.
The multifaceted illusion is nothing more than doing one thing, but each medium that I work with is a different tool in the toolbox. If I need to write a story, I write a story. If I need to write a song, I write a song. If I need to make a cartoon, I draw a cartoon. It’s all form following function. So in order to have a toolbox that has a lot of tools in it, I just practice working in all these mediums.
Back in college, I was a painting major. I wanted to learn how to paint like the old masters. I felt like if I could understand the traditional approach, I could do anything. So I devoted myself to the studies of Venetian painting. I felt satisfied with what I accomplished in terms of that study, and then thought it would be in my best interest to study other ways of achieving artistic perfection.
When I got into country blues, the standards were different. That kind of music allows the musician to unfold in real time and do what they’re naturally inclined to do without being academically trained. I liked the idea of being an artist that didn’t have to be in a studio. I wanted to explore ways I could create art on the go because I like being an artist all the time. That explains why I do all these things, because it lets me move and there’s always a tool to reach for when I need it. Form follows function.
Do you feel an impulse to go in one direction over another?
I’ve been enjoying my career as an editorial illustrator. It’s not what I thought I’d be doing. But I didn’t think I’d be working at the farmers market in Union Square sweeping up vegetable leaves either. And I didn’t think I’d be working as an office assistant at The New Yorker. These were jobs to keep the electricity on. And making funny cartoons for The New Yorker, that was another thing. After I became an office assistant, I got a job working for Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor. I would look through a thousand cartoons a week. I started to get the formula, so I tried my hand at it. You walk around, and you go to a diner and the waiter or waitress will say something, and—bam! You’ve got something right there. So I was able to work while I was eating eggs. That’s what I liked about it. And I feel that’s how art should always be. I should always be “on.” I don’t ever want to become confined to a technique or an approach or a way of thinking about things.
That raises the idea of constraints. What does the word “constraint” mean to you?
Constraints, they’re all relative. We’re free to leave our constraints anytime. I can’t speak for what the rest of the world does, but if I end up doing something that costs any type of security—financial or otherwise—I’ll figure it out from there. I’m not going to stop what I’m working on; I’m not going to stop my life. That’s just how much making art matters to me. I can’t let anything take away from who I am.
What about working within clients’ constraints? How do you find that balance?
I really try to focus on keeping my joy at a high level. A lot of times I’m faced with a challenge in my creative work where I can’t just do anything I want. Often the answer lies with what would be the most fun for me. So, say there’s an illustration that’s a real challenge, or an illustration concept that I’m not really that excited about. I might not want what the client wants. I challenge myself to take the reigns and show them what I think they might want. I pretend that they’ll love anything that I do.
And sometimes it works. And they say, “Oh my god, way to go! That actually is what we thought we meant but couldn’t really say.” And sometimes they say, “No, no, not that.” But it’s all about making sure I keep myself in it, and not try to guess what someone else wants, but rather tell my own story. When I draw a portrait of the president, I’m drawing a portrait of the president, but I’m also telling my own story. Here’s what I think the president looks like. Subjectivity can save the day.
In your portraiture, you get an understanding of the way the person looks, but there’s also an emotional response there. Talk about how you capture that.
When I was a freshman at Pratt, somehow I talked myself into a graduate anatomy course. I found myself reaching up into skinned cadavers at Columbia University and devoting myself to learning how to draw in the same way Michelangelo did. I also had a masterful teacher who taught me certain ways of seeing the forms that those artists taught us how to draw. So when I’m drawing, the last thing I’m thinking about is who I’m drawing. I’m just enjoying representing the form in the way I know how. If it contains an emotion, I guess it’s because I’m emotional when I draw, so that comes through.
Could you talk a bit about how the constraint of form may actually help you succeed?
Well, when you know who you are, you know what to do. It always comes back to form follows function. So as an illustrator, when I first started, I was nervous to draw Hank Williams III for The New Yorker, so I stripped it down to black and white, pen and ink, because I’d been drawing cartoons like that my whole life. I was sure that’s how I wanted to draw Hank Williams—by drawing the way I knew how, having fun with the form, exaggerating a little, editorializing. The magazine was an appropriate forum, so finding that style became easy. And then the more I knew my own self and style, the easier it became to problem-solve. It’s not about what you’ve got, it’s about what you do with what you’ve got. That’s a famous line in a blues song, and that’s a belief I think about every day. It all comes back to subjectivity of form and just trying to make it easy for myself to communicate an idea.
How do you handle creative direction when you get that from a client?
I love providing the service to illustrate the ideas of my clients, but each job is also informing my own expressive exercises. I always try to envision beyond what the client might like, what I would like to spend my time working on. I just ask myself, What would I like to draw today based on these givens? And if it’s fun to me, usually the client says, “That sounds fun to us.” And sometimes it’s not, and I have to keep thinking. Simple as that.