Fred Tomaselli's Magical Surrealism

Working with pills, plants, and even pot, Fred Tomaselli’s psychedelic collages and paintings take flight in a new show in Aspen.

Fred Tomaselli’s art is an accumulation of collaged body parts, pills, pot, and paint. Images of mouths, fingers, and breasts—along with clippings of snakes, flowers, and birds—are culled from printed matter and then juxtaposed with leaves of grass, pharmaceuticals, and painted forms to create epic allegories and hypnotic abstractions. Bound in multiple layers of clear resin, these plucked elements come together to portray tantric gods, personal galaxies, and visions of paradise. Now, 40 of the artist’s paintings and works on paper have been gathered together for a survey show at the Aspen Art Museum, which is on view through October 11.


“All of my work has been heavily influenced by my growing up near Disneyland, at the heart of Southern California’s theme-park culture,” Tomaselli once told an interviewer. “In my youth, I was pretty much a ne’er-do-well stoner mallrat.” After graduating from California State University, Fullerton in 1982, he began making installations that dealt with perceptions of light and space by presenting a lo-tech trippy view of the cosmos. He exhibited these works in a number of local group shows, including the ironically titled Crap, organized by the infamous L.A. artist Paul McCarthy. Then in 1985, at age 29, Tomaselli packed his bags and moved to Brooklyn, where he became an early settler in the soon-to-be thriving artist’s community of Williamsburg.

Over the past 24 years, Tomaselli has established an international art career—exhibiting with high profile galleries, such as Christopher Grimes in Los Angeles, Anne de Villepoix in Paris, James Cohan in New York, and London’s White Cube. His work has also been celebrated in solo shows at numerous institutions, including the Whitney Museum of Art, Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, and Dublin’s Irish Museum of Modern Art; acquired by major collectors, and critically praised.

The Aspen Museum show, which travels in early 2010 to the Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs, NY and later that year to the Brooklyn Museum, focuses on his two-dimensional works made between 1990 and 2008. Black and White All Over, from 1993, turns a pharmacy into an art supply store, as Tomaselli lines up row after row of white aspirin, antacid, saccharin, ephedrine, and acetaminophen tablets and embeds them in layers of resin above a field of black paint—updating Minimal and Op Art painting in the process.

The tree of life takes on new meaning in 1994’s Super Plant, which uses marijuana leaves and painted flowers and fruit to create beautiful rhythmic patterns sprouting from a root and expansive branches. For his dynamic 2000 painting Echo, Wow and Flutter, Tomaselli added cut-out hands, eyes, flowers, insects, and birds to the leaf and pill mix, while transforming the materials into a gorgeous Pop abstraction. In the same year, he painted male and female figures, which are pure flesh and blood, into a garden of earthly delights to make a modern version of the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden.

Airborne Event, from 2003, places man at the center of the universe. Headless and composed from body parts cut from books and magazines, Tomaselli’s androgynous figure is projected by the rays of heaven and caught by earthborn spider webs and mandalas, which spiritually connect the two realms. Meanwhile, the whimsically titled 2005 painting Hang Over shows the natural world as a construction of man—a fantasy the starts with children’s animated cartoons and continues into adult life through art.

Wrapping up the show, Blue Geode, from 2007, tackles fractals, webs, galaxies, geodesic structures, and the big boom, while 2008’s Woodpecker puts collaged bits of people into the head of a bird that seemingly dreams of a psychedelic universe. In this work, and the other pieces on display, the artist reveals a spiritual journey through his art. In a telling manner, the drugs of the past have disappeared and been replaced by their own simulacra. Tomaselli has found a way to express the inner man constructively by transforming the dark side of his psyche into a visual language of enlightenment for all to share.

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Paul Laster is the editor of, a contributing editor at and Art Asia Pacific, and a contributing writer at Time Out New York and Art in America.