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Architectural Metaphysics

by Sareda Milosz

Crossing the threshold of the Pedro Friedeberg family's San Miguel de Allende home, one feels the pull of European intellectual sensibility: the darkish library, the fussy parlor with its collection of artistic knickknacks, the small living room with fireplace and cowhide sofa.

This sensation is soon dispelled by the New Worldly and distinctly Mexican sense of humor evident in the artwork that is displayed on the walls and tables, and the lamplight that glints off the gilt surfaces of Friedeberg's own sculptures and the facets of the letter openers, mirrors, crystals and prisms that have caught the artist's eye to join his domestic assembly of doodads.
Pedro Friedeberg, Mexico's foremost exponent of hallucinatory geometry and psychedelic, clonified architecture, was born in Florence to German Jewish parents who had left Germany to escape the war. In 1939, the three-year-old future artist arrived in Mexico with his mother. To pass the time, she studied watercolor painting at the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City, and young Pedro, with his sister (Vera Bopp, now a ceramist in Mexico City), went along as well.
The Benjamin Franklin Library was nearby, and Friedeberg was fascinated by the volumes on architecture, ranging from the medieval to the modern. He enrolled as a student of architecture at the Universidad Ibero-Americana, where he produced singular drawings and ornamental architectural models influenced by many historical "isms" and by 1959, artist Remedios Varo had seen his drawings and encouraged him to have a show.
" On the first night, says Friedeberg, "I sold about seven drawings. I thought it was a lot more fun than going to the office."
Soon gallery-goers were able to identify Friederberg's distinctive style, and his odd furniture- the famous palm of the hand chairs (with feet for feet), butterfly seats and end tables, and rococo gilt sofas- had found their place in the world of Mexican art by the mid-1960s. The artist and his family moved to San Miguel in the early 80s, "when you could still buy a decent house for US $ 30,000."
As a subject for an interview, Friedeberg is both generous and hard to pin down. His sense of humor dominates the dialog, and it's soon evident that it's okay to laugh about his art and his point of view. In fact, that's the point of it all. The artist has a glib and answer at the ready for any question: though his responses seem almost rehearsed, he's a clever and expansive ad-libber, especially when he thinks he might be quoted. It doesn't take extensive knowledge of art to compare Friedeberg's drawings to those of Escher. Most of the visitors to the Museo Galeria Pedro Friedeberg at Calle Recreo 5-A in San Miguel de Allende, a few doors from his home, immediately make the connection, and Friedeberg agrees, although he cites the Italians Piranesi and De Chirico as his main inspirations. But Friedeberg's architectural themes, though incredibly ornate and detailed, are more like psychedelic, magnetic virtual cartoons, which, like quicksand, draw the viewer into a maze that's difficult to escape.
The artist describes himself as "Eclectic, poly-stylistic and fantastic." A 1965 exhibition of his work at the New York Museum of Contemporary Art was called "Fantastic Architecture, Fantastic Furniture."
To the suggestion that his drawings resemble the product of an all-night session of hallucinations on graph paper, Friederberg laughingly replies that, " No, it's more like all-day for many, many days," and proves his point by demonstrating a work-in-progress on his studio drawings table. Dramatically, he removes the bandannas that "protect my work from the cat." The ornate pencil grid work background is lit up by undulating perspectives in black ink-a sort of wavy plaid and checkered grillwork well on its way to

Becoming another of those draw-you-in Friedeberg exhibition, such as the one presently underway in New Orleans at the Simone Sterne Gallery, can be a challenge. It is easier to study the details of a single drawing than to try to see everything in the exhibit. The furniture is less demanding of the viewer, fantastic and not necessarily comfortable-looking.
But those drawings: some contain lists, or verses, and once the viewer begins to read, Friedeberg's spell is cast. It is difficult to move on, particularly as one grows to realize that there are dozens of equally infinitely detailed creations lining the gallery walls. And, though they all bear the artist's elaborate architectural perspective and finicky attention to composition, each is a separate world, or even a universe.
One is cast alone into these strange spaces, left to fend for oneself in the spiritual whirlpool implied by the drawings. But when approached about the idea of a spiritual perspective, Friedeberg at first shrugs off the question. "They're doodles that keep on growing. Think of Mitla, and Puebla tiles with Spanish and Mexican patterns. Most people are terrified by my drawings."
Then he elaborates. "As for the spiritual part, on Mondays I'm a Theosophist, on Tuesday a Rosicrucian, on Wednesdays I'm a Sufi, etcetera. Actually, I'm extremely spiritually confused, and organized religion is even more confusing. Catholicism if full of idolatry and cannibalism. Everybody's looking for religion on the other side of the world.
"All sacred art is symmetrical. Super civilized' people, like Americans, think symmetry is precious,' so they so they make their art casual and messy. It's spontaneous, but it lacks elegance. I like to stick to the old rules, like symmetry. Art in general has become lazy. Everybody wants to finish a painting in a morning. Nobody wants to bother to carry out their art. But look at Vermeer: he did three a year, at the most."
Aside from his paintings and sculptures, much of Friedeberg's work embodies architectural commissions in individual homes. He has created fireplaces with huge mouths from which the flames and heat emerge, mazes, and the other odd, ornamental details for San Miguel homeowners who desire something uncommon. Presently he is working on a labyrinth for a beachfront home in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca. And, as if one prolific artist in the household were not enough, Friedeberg's wife, Carmen, is also an accomplished artist, with a show of her work opening soon in Mexico City, and another in October at Casa Domit in Polanco.
In spite of the comfortable workspace perched atop his San Miguel home, Friedeberg maintains that he is "happiest creating in a room at the Holiday Inn in out-of the way places like Buenos Aires or Nairobi." These are odd words coming from a man who appears to be a homebody. He loves cats, and a pair of small, fox terrier-like dogs follow him not only around the house, but around town as well, as he stops for the daily newspaper and picks up the morning rolls at the bakery. But Friedeberg is not afraid of contradiction. His Dali-esque assemblages mix modern images with antiques, and his drawings contain elements of infinite detail. "To live in the age," he says, "it's irreverent about everything. In Mexico, we live in the past, but in the US one is surrounded by anodyne ugliness and philistinism."
As for his view of nature, "Gardens are beautiful, but I hate nature. I always create man-made satires on nature."
Trained as an architect, Pedro Friedeberg took a fork in the road and became a successful artist. He finds no discord in the choice. "I could never work a regular job. You can be an artist at home, and meet really crazy people, including crazy crooks. The chaos of the artist's life appeals to me."