The City in Fruin

Tom Fruin has come along way since “Starfucker,” his first, highly controversial solo show at Mike Weiss Gallery in 2003. So has Weiss, admittedly, who can’t help but smile mischievously as he reminisces about that seminal year in operation, when a younger, wilder Fruin would guide the developing art-world magnate across a diverse urban landscape on seedy scavenger hunts for discarded drug bags of varying colors and graphic distinction. Later that year, after (rather famously) selling a “Starfucker” drug-bag quilt to Willem Defoe for a hefty sum, Weiss attempted to present a well-deserved check to Fruin. The newly knighted art-star (at first) adamantly rejected, declaring, “What, do you think I work for you or something?”

For “Color Study,” Fruin’s upcoming solo show opening September 4 at Weiss’ enduringly innovative Chelsea space, the mixed-media artist has all but discarded the bags themselves, instead focusing on their equally enduring iconography. Hearts, marijuana leaves, Superman logos, dice, crowns, and Playboy bunnies are now featured on thick, fluorescent “Colby Print” poster board, encased safely behind glass and floating in custom frames crafted by Fruin himself. In these works, the artist is not simply paying homage to the illicit plastic artifacts that made him a household name, but also to the Colby Poster Printing Company, a family owned operation in Los Angeles that closed its doors in 2012 after 64 years in business.

The main attraction of “Color Study” is a to-scale, multi-colored reproduction of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, on full display inside the gallery. Guests will be able to closely interact with the 10-foot scrap metal and Plexiglas installation, a feat not so easily accomplished with Fruin’s most popular work, the luminous Watertower sculpture perched atop a DUMBO rooftop that overlooks the East River. A similar structure, Watertower II, was recently erected in Brooklyn Bridge Park, a handsome contribution to the waterfront’s ongoing beautification process. Perhaps the most well traveled work in Fruin’s found-signage series is the stained-glass rooftop art chapel titled MAXIKIOSKO, currently accessible only to those able to get past the overzealous sentinels guarding the door at The Wythe Hotel. Strangely enough, the most overlooked piece in Fruin’s oeuvre also happens to be his largest and most conspicuous. Hiding in plain sight is a five-piece, 50-foot neon marquee on the face of the same building: Hotel.

We caught up with Tom Fruin on a pair of adjacent swings, expertly molded in the fashion of Philly Blunt cigar bands and suspended by thick industrial chains in the center of his studio workshop, conveniently located in the same building that supports his iconic “Watertower” sculpture, the centerpiece of his own personal rooftop playground.

KURT MCVEY: The name of this show is “Color Study.” I’m sure there are many layers involved. What’s going on behind that title?

TOM FRUIN: For me, the titles usually come later. They’re an afterthought, really. Mike [Weiss] was throwing a lot of ideas at me. We were thinking “All Access,” in terms of how my work is normally on rooftops and other hard-to-reach places. After about a year, we had a long list of titles, and “Color Study” was on there. I had been doing these “sketches in steel,” as I call them, which were quick one-off versions of these huge sculptures. We had many conversations about great big ideas while standing over these little things. Mike just looked at me and said, “This means everything.”

MCVEY: Painting and sculpture are different mediums, of course, but do you ever get frustrated with that part of the artistic process?

FRUIN: It’s almost a little tongue-in-cheek. The palette is a given. It’s all found objects and materials; the ephemera of the city. I’m at a point now where people bring me their scraps. When it’s a round thing, like the tower, I try to give it four or five “faces” or different moments that reward you if you should walk around the piece.

MCVEY: So if you walk someone around one of your sculptures, you’re basically taking them on a conceptual tour of the five boroughs, or at least different neighborhoods and streets.

FRUIN: There’s a different moment or interaction that correlates to each tiny piece of metals or Plexi. It certainly keeps the pieces interesting for me.

MCVEY: When you’re out hunting for materials, are you someone separate from Tom Fruin, the artist, or is it all part of the same process? Have you been accepted into this underground club of scavengers, like the bottle and can people on the Lower East Side? Are there unspoken rules to urban scavenging?

FRUIN: I try to be somewhat non-descript. I learned very quickly that it’s best to do this earlier in the morning as opposed to later at night when you’re a target for someone’s idle attention. Also, I think my size kind of helps.

MCVEY: You’re kind of a big teddy bear.

FRUIN: I’ll take that, I guess. [laughs] It helps that I look like I don’t carry a lot of cash. I’ve had people look at me in a predatory fashion, but they usually decide to wait for the next guy. I’ve always been interested in following the homeless trail. There’s always the potential you’ll end up in some fucked-up spot, but it’s always an interesting vantage point.

MCVEY: Speaking of vantage points, I feel like your most celebrated piece is the Watertower on the roof of 120 Jay Street. Thousands of people a day can see that work while crossing the Manhattan Bridge. I know this is kind of the point of outdoor, public art, but I wonder, would you ever put a sculpture in a place that isn’t so visible or prominent; something that requires someone to venture off the beaten path?

FRUIN: I’d love that, for sure. Right now, at this time in New York City, there’s such an audience. I’m also still in a place in my career where it’s still about the eyeballs on the work. I do hide some things out on the streets of DUMBO, but they’re unsigned and unknown.

MCVEY: You’ve got a piece going up in Brooklyn Bridge Park, which has really come a long way. What can you tell us about that?

FRUIN: It’s another water tower. It’s all materials I found in The Ingersoll Houses, right next to the Walt Whitman houses. My studio and apartment used to be equidistant to Fort Greene Park, so I would go there every morning. I actually made a birds’-eye view map of the entire housing project made entirely out of drug bags and other bits of plastic and things. I called it “Treasure Map,” and you could actually use it to find pockets of… activity.

MCVEY: Where is this map now?

FRUIN: It’s in a private collection, but I scanned and converted it to a laser-cut file. I’ll get you a print.

MCVEY: Let’s talk about this Statue of Liberty piece I’ve been hearing so much about.

FRUIN: It’s the flame of the torch at 1:1 full scale, which is just over 10 feet tall. Much of it will be made from stained, re-purposed factory glass from Detroit. The architecture of the piece is derived from a file used for the torch’s restoration in 1984.

MCVEY: Was it an ordeal finding that file?

FRUIN: It took a lot of digging. They sent me all over New York, a little in D.C. It was a process going through all the boxes in the archives. Much of them were surprisingly empty, but they would lead you to the next box until you found what you were looking for, but nothing too Cloak and Dagger really.

MCVEY: I wanted to ask you about the white flags that showed up on top of the Brooklyn Bridge.

FRUIN: It wasn’t me! [both laugh] I’m sorry I missed it. I actually made white American flags before, about five years ago. At first it was a commentary on race and visibility, then it became this thing about surrender, and that kind of tripped me out. I did like that they used lasagna tins to cover up the lights. That was right up my alley.

MCVEY: Tell us about the moment when you truly became infatuated with the iconic imagery found on drug bags.

FRUIN: The first quilt I made was a collection of these drug bags. It was about taking these dejected items and turning them into this American symbol of warmth or family. I soon realized that each neighborhood had different kinds of bags, whether it was Harlem or Chinatown, and they all had their own language or signature. I wanted to accent what made them so unique to their environment.

MCVEY: Contemporary artists are continually looking to bring a new context to an established or even iconic image, from the Playboy bunny to the Batman logo. You’re now doing large-scale prints of the drug bag images.

FRUIN: They’re actually based on a Colby Print, a now defunct L.A. screen-printing shop that kind of broke all the rules. They would put stuff on thick card stock with mixed fonts and typefaces. They seemed to really shout out the information. Eventually they became part of the L.A. landscape. I wanted to shout out these brands or images in a similar, endlessly repeating way, almost like wallpaper, but compressed and floating in these glass cases, perhaps to keep them, not precious, but separate from the environment.

MCVEY: I feel like street art has taken on this tacky wallpaper aesthetic, this almost cheesy ’70s pastiche. Most of it seems thrown up with this nonchalance while somehow feeling incredibly needy. 

FRUIN: I like street art. I don’t know if it’s dead. It definitely doesn’t have the vitality it used to have, but there’s some interesting things going on.

MCVEY: I just don’t like street art to have the artist’s phone number, email, website, date of birth, and Social Security Number plastered along side it. I’m talking about the new kids, mostly. It just feels more like a means to an end, than some kind of statement.

FRUIN: I met some graffiti guys when I first moved to New York in 1996. We’d be on Broadway somewhere, and one faction would say it’s about destroy, the other would say it’s about create. I think there’s an interesting middle ground. You have to be somewhat disrespectful to put your stuff up there, but the work has to be better than the wall before you hit it.

MCVEY: You have a son. He just turned one.

FRUIN: Yeah. He’s awesome.

MCVEY: How does he respond to your work?

FRUIN: I brought him into the tower and he got psyched. You could see it in his face. Kids like most things that are colorful, crazy and confusing.

MCVEY: I want to know the best thing someone from outside your immediate circle told you about your work—once they discovered who you are—something that really moved you as an artist.

FRUIN: This one kid wrote me, and I don’t know if it was the Q or the R train, but he said, even if he was late, he would wait for the train on the near [north] side of the bridge just to see the tower in the morning on the way to work and again on the way home. It was the bookend of his day. I didn’t even realize the trains would be a part of the viewing audience. Now I enjoy watching people glued to the train windows. But for that kid, that’s his own personal moment for reflection and I thought that was awesome.