Pedro Friedeberg - Purple Magazine: The Mexico Issue

Pedro Friedeberg - Purple Magazine: The Mexico Issue

— The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021



interview by EMILIEN CRESPO
photography by PIA RIVEROLA
all artwork copyright pedro friedeberg

for decades, the eccentric 84-year-old artist pedro friedeberg has been blurring the frontier between decorative art, design, and sculpture. he embodies an irreverent postmodern attitude, mixing a renaissance perspective, op art, and mexican motifs. his home in mexico city, full of his paintings, furniture, books, and curiosities, is a work of art in itself

EMILIEN CRESPO — You were born in Italy in 1936. What are some of your earliest memories?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I was born in the landscape of Giorgio de Chirico, in Florence. The clouds would pass very slowly. I thought the churches were moving, but it was the clouds that were passing. That’s all I remember.

EMILIEN CRESPO — That’s your only memory of Italy?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — They gave me a parrot.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Was it a talking parrot?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — He spoke Latin. We didn’t bring him to Mexico.

EMILIEN CRESPO — And you moved to Mexico when you were three?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I was three years old. I didn’t move. They moved me.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Your parents were German Jews — is that correct?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — My mother, yes. My father was a horrible Italian man, so she had to leave and bring me here.

EMILIEN CRESPO — How was it, growing up in Mexico? What do you remember of your childhood here?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I hated my childhood because we had to live in the modern architecture of Mexico in the ’30s. All the houses that I lived in were really dismal. Everything was cubic and charmless. They sent me to a different school every six months. My mother was never satisfied because one school would be full of priests, and the next, full of military people. Another school was full of the French, telling you how to eat a banana with a fork and a knife. The first good school I went to was the American school. That’s why I love the United States. I think I’m the only person I know who likes the United States. I don’t care whether it’s neoliberalist, capitalist, all those stupid names they give it because they’re jealous. They’re jealous because Americans are just as stupid as they are, but they’re rich, and they have the American dream: the house, the car, and the faceless wife.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What attracted you to America?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I was sent to school at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] in Boston, but I was too stupid. I was only 16 years old. I didn’t understand anything, so they sent me to a preparatory school in Boston. Chauncy Hall. It was in Copley Square, across from Trinity Church. That’s when I started admiring Victorian architecture. The churches are crazy. Really, Victorian artists are the most surrealist and crazy. It should be more appreciated. Do you understand what I’m saying because I have no teeth upstairs?

EMILIEN CRESPO — [Laughs] I do. You studied architecture, too?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I came back to Mexico because I hated taking my laundry to a laundromat, and there are no servants in the States. Here, you could say: “Please, make my bed. Bring me a taco de mole.” I came back to Mexico because life is more comfortable here. This is the Mexican dream.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Exactly, mole and laundry! The best kind of dream.
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Then I studied architecture with some Jesuit priests, but they were very clever. I’m mostly Jewish and atheist, but the Jesuits fascinated me. I had already been converted to Catholicism secretly. And they took me and put water on me and mumbled some Latin things.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Secretly. They didn’t tell your mother?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — No. She never found out. She couldn’t care less. She was taught to be corrupt, like me.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What did architecture bring you?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I learn­ed to draw in perspective. That’s what fascinated me: to be able to draw in perspective, which is an art. Supposedly. I think the laws of it were set in the Renaissance, but they were already there from Roman times. They are much older. I knew much more than all the other students. I’d been to Europe, to the States, and I knew the difference between Gropius and Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, and all these young people didn’t know anything. They wanted to study architecture because they didn’t want to be dentists.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Did you design any buildings?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I helped an architect called Max Cetto. I learned more than I helped. I drew their ideas. And another architect called Vladimir Kaspé. He was a very successful Russian-Jewish architect in Mexico who built many houses for the president’s family — that kind of fascist style. Some are still standing.

EMILIEN CRESPO — But you liked the drawing part of it…
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I think what I do is architectural interpretation. Because I love all kinds of architecture: Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Roman, Greek, the Middle Ages, everything, especially if you can see the perspective.

EMILIEN CRESPO — And Mathias Goeritz was your mentor.
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Oh, yes. I met Mathias Goeritz in that Jesuit school. And I worked with him. I helped him design the Towers of Satellite City, when he was working and designing together with an architect called Luis Barragán, who is very, very famous and who didn’t build much, either.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What did Mathias Goeritz teach you?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Humor and to take nothing seriously. And how to handle important clients and unimportant clients. I used to go everywhere with him, like a little dog. I was very happy with him. He paid me, even. And he also introduced me to Anita Brenner, who wrote a very famous book called Idols Behind Altars. A wonderful person, a very talented writer, and a person of humor and ideas. I think foreigners understand Mexico much better because they see it from the outside. Many Mexicans are unhappy because they’re stuck here. They think this is it, whereas we tourists or foreigners have an objective view from the outside, and we see all the humor and all the color and all the craziness and the creativity of popular art. There is no popular art here. Well, my art is sometimes popular. I think it has a great influence on popular art.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What is the most misunderstood thing about Mexico, from the outside?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — They have all the clichés. But they don’t see the marvelous part. The art, the food — not the mentality, no. The mentality is very underdeveloped because they are still like Idols Behind Altars. That’s what Anita Brenner understood in 1929. Some Mexicans are very developed and understand the country. In those days, everybody came to Mexico. Some came for five minutes, and some stayed — like Leonora Carrington, like Remedios Varo, like me. Many people stayed here. Also because of the war. It was very much like today, the 1930s and ’40s. Those horrible things going on, so people get stuck, and then they realize that they’re stuck in a wonderful place. Everybody was wrong politically.

EMILIEN CRESPO — And why is Mexico such a haven for that?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I think because they’re ignorant, and they’re disorganized, so they can’t tell the difference between a Nazi and a hippopotamus. They accept everything. That’s why five million people from Central America are now walking through Mexico to get to the American dream. They use this as a welcome mat.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You spent most of your life in Mexico City, but you still see yourself as a foreigner. Why is that? Is it because you never felt fully Mexican?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — No, because I have a European mania for being on time, punctuality. And all Mexicans are five hours late.

EMILIEN CRESPO — I hope you noticed that we rang your bell at 12 sharp.
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I will manage if you are half-an-hour late. I’m very tolerant. But Mexicans are afraid of being rude, so they never want to say “no” or “I can’t come tomorrow.” If you say, “Can you come tomorrow at four?” They’ll never say “No, I’m busy.” They’ll say, “Yes, yes, of course.” Or they’ll come another day and say, “I understood it was Wednesday at seven.”

EMILIEN CRESPO — Mexico has had quite a few periods, especially for art. Was there a golden age of art in Mexico, in your eyes?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I think the 18th century must have been the golden age. Because there are all these Churrigueresque churches. Super Baroque, sometimes mixed with popular art. Like the [Templo de Santa María] Tonantzintla church in Puebla. There must be a hundred churches like that in Mexico. It’s a wonder they’re still here after the revolution. Just before the revolution, they modernized many churches. They made them very ugly, neoclassical, pseudo neoclassical… It’s a miracle we still have a hundred Rococo, Baroque, Churrigueresque churches. Mainly in Puebla and Cholula. Here in the cities, there are almost none. Here, there is only the altar of the Cristo del Cacao [Christ of Cocoa] in the cathedral. People who had no money would pay with cocoa beans, which I find extremely charming.

EMILIEN CRESPO — And in your lifetime, was there a time when you felt there was something special happening with art in your city?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — For me, the foreign painters — and especially the women artists — were the greatest, like Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Bridget [Bate] Tichenor. She was a student of George Tooker and was a magic realist. She was neighbor of Peggy Guggenheim when she had a gallery on 57th Street [in New York], and then she moved to California. And then, like all nice American ladies who wanted to get divorced, they came to Mexico to get divorced. And then they stayed here because they liked it. Because they could live like queens on $100 a month. This was in 1940.

EMILIEN CRESPO — How has Mexico changed?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — People are more or less the same. I think they’ve become more rude. Before, they were much sweeter. What I see now is that the markets, which are fabulous, are much cleaner. There are a lot of trees on the streets — that’s a marvelous thing. And what else, what else? The city is much too large for my taste. When I was 10 years old, one could take a streetcar. There were no skyscrapers because they didn’t know how to build them then — they used to fall down. Every five years, there would be an earthquake, and the whole city was like this: flat.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Now they know how to build better, for better or for worse.
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — But I get pretty exasperated sometimes, and I would like to move to Portugal because the people there are very sweet. They’re very quiet. There are no rock concerts, or I haven’t seen or heard any. Rock music, ugh. There’s a beautiful island called Madeira. Beautiful style, very Baroque, Manueline, Manueline Gothic. There’s a wonderful hotel in a place called Bussaco near Porto. I made plans, and they never seemed to come through, and now, suddenly, I’m 85 years old. So, there isn’t much more time left.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You seem pretty young at heart still.
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Yes, but the heart is only one-seventh of the human being, unfortunately. Most people would like to live forever. Have their face lifted all the time. The face is the most important. The face, the height, and the sex.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What, for you, is the most important?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — For me, I think the brain and the eyes.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Talking about the eyes — as an artist, you designed quite a few pieces, like the famous hand chair.
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — The hand chair was a terrible mistake. It was an accident that was successful. I think that happens to many painters. Maybe it happened to Jackson Pollock. You know, he made some dribbles, and two art critics came and said, “That’s fantastic.” So, he said, “I’ll make more dribbles.” Or Mark Rothko. I knew Mark Rothko, just before he committed suicide. But he was very depressed because he said: “All I do is red, then another shade of red, and then pink. And that’s what they want me to do for the rest of my life. And they pay me $10,000.” In those days, they gave $10,000. He thought it was wonderful.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What did he want to do? Did he tell you?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Before that, he used to paint conventional figurative works, like all the realists, sligh­tly Expressionist. And going already to abstract, but complicated abstract, not just silly colors. Early Russian Supremacists. They ended up with a god of stupidity called Andy Warhol. The most stupid of all was Andy Warhol, I think.

PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Why? He made us worship the Coca-Cola bottle. Or a can of tomato soup.

EMILIEN CRESPO — That’s not the American dream for you?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Well, part of the American dream is that you can like anything. If you like Paul Klee, they think you’re stupid. But you have to like Andy Warhol.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Did you meet Andy Warhol?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Yes, he came to my house when I lived on Reforma. He came in, he said, “Ugh,” and he walked right out.

EMILIEN CRESPO — [Laughs] Great meeting.
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I think he thought the party was very bourgeois. And somebody brought him — he said, “Oh, I’m bringing Andy Warhol.” I think it was somebody called Nicholas Sanchez, a famous columnist. I used to have a beautiful apartment. Very good parties. My wife used to invite 20 people, but 100 would come, including Andy Warhol. Most people didn’t leave. Most people stayed and drank all my money away. Whisky, vodka, rum, etc.

EMILIEN CRESPO — No tequila?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — No, tequila wasn’t fashionable among the upper class. It became fashionable later. Then mezcal. I don’t like mezcal, unfortunately.

PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — It tastes like a combination of horseshit and adobe.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Which other artists came here, whom you enjoyed?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Besides the women whom I mentioned? There was Alice Rahon’s first or second husband, Wolfgang Paalen, dead for many years.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What about the Surrealists, like André Breton?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I never met Breton personally. Alice Rahon wrote to him with a photo of the chairs, and then he wrote me back. I still have the letter saying “undoubtedly the chair is part of the Surrealist movement,” or something like that.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Was it a compliment for you?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — At 25 years old, yes. Now it’s an insult. I also used to like Frida Kahlo very much until she became too popular, and she became a cliché. I don’t like painters who become clichés. I think Diego Rivera is a genius.
I think his mural Man at the Crossroads is a piece of genius. I think that’s the one he repainted after he had painted it for Rockefeller. Rockefeller said, “Oh, Lenin.” And José Clemente Orozco is marvelous, too. Orozco in Guadalajara. The dome of the Hospicio Cabañas is fantastic. It’s really striking. David Alfaro Siqueiros, I also admire very much, but he was too Communist and too fascist. He created the slogan, “No hay más ruta que la nuestra” (“There is no way but ours”). That’s so stupid.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What about Dalí?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — He never came to Mexico. He was not allowed here because his astrologer said he couldn’t go below 35 degrees. New York is, like, 40 degrees. New York, Spain, Italy. But he did some murals for a hotel in Acapulco.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What do you owe to pre-Hispanic art in your work?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I started hating pre-Hispanic art because, when I was very young, it was the fashion to collect it. [Grabs a statue] That’s an imitation — don’t tell anybody it’s a real one because they would put me in jail. I used to hate those because my parents collected them. All the German Jews who came here collected those things. This was the generation after Picasso discovered African art. They came here to discover this kind of art. And some pieces are quite fantastic because they look like a little Teotihuacan artifact. You know, those heads of serpents. They look like Art Deco, and Art Deco used them. I liked the texture, the sophisticated innocence. Also, some people believe they stewed blood. But don’t tell a Mexican they were once cannibals. Of course, they’re cannibals. They’re still eating goats’ eyes on every corner. Goats now, not babies.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What did you like about Surrealism?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — It’s a continuation of the Victorian art that I like. Of the modern school, it’s the closest kind of painting that tells a story. It became very unfashionable to tell a story in a painting. It had to be like a flat thing, like Mark Rothko or Paul Cézanne. And I like historical paintings, like at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What about Op Art?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Very much, yes. There was a woman called — who’s that famous British Op Art woman?

EMILIEN CRESPO — Bridget Riley?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — I loved her things. But all these abstract things were incomplete. They don’t tell the story, or they need something. They’re painted like wallpaper. Wallpaper can be very pretty, but it’s not a complete art. It’s better than a lot of art, but it needs an apple or a tree or a rose, something to complement it — otherwise, it’s boring.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Abstract is boring, for you?

EMILIEN CRESPO — You don’t have wallpaper in your house, do you?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — No, all I have are mirrors because you don’t have to paint them. You put the mirror up; it lasts 25 years, at least. And it makes everything look airier.

EMILIEN CRESPO — In Mexico, there’s a tradition of mushrooms, peyote, and other substances. Were you ever into that?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Another close friend — Edward James, who built a castle in Xilitla — gave me some dry mushrooms. He insisted. I don’t like artificial paradise. I think that paradise should be non-artificial, natural. You have to take things… Not everybody is as lucky as I am.

EMILIEN CRESPO  What makes you happy? Is it being in your house, creating, or being with your family?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — No. That poisons your happiness: the family. It’s all right to have a family — like, the kids are 200 miles away, in San Miguel de Allende. I don’t live with chains. The French writer Stendhal said, “The chains of matrimony are so heavy it takes three people to carry them.” Going to Acapulco with a good friend made me very happy for five days, for example. And coming back and finding my person who makes bronze making these rather interesting things. It’s like a surprise. I’m very happy when people do things correctly. Creation makes you happy. And if you have something called feedback. If you have people who come and interview you or buy your art or take photographs. That makes you happy, too. Happiness is very simple. You just have to have good karma.

EMILIEN CRESPO — And you’ve had good karma?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Very good. Like the lottery, you either have it, or you don’t. Most people don’t.
I see so many depressed people. They don’t take Prozac anymore; they take other things. Or they sleep 20 hours a day. You try to make them happy, but it’s not so simple for them. I’ve had some unhappy periods, too. I think it’s something to do with your biorhythm. And I lived for a time in a horrible city called Dallas, Texas, but every day the newspaper would come, and you’d turn to a certain page, and it would say “Your Biorhythm for Today.” Biorhythm. “From 8 to 10, you will be very unhappy. But from 10 to 12, you will be a little happier because your blood will…” Some nonsense, like horoscopes.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What was the thing that kept you going?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — Literature. I used to have three times as many books. I gave many books away. And classical music seems to make me very happy. When I was unhappy, I would listen to Beethoven’s quartets.
I think I’ve heard them 200 times, all of them, and there’s only, like, a dozen of them. But they express a sort of sadness, an intelligent melancholy, and a phase at the end of it like a rainbow, like a sunrise, like everything will be all right. No? I still have all my vinyl records. They’re all scratched up. I’m disappointed in classical music because there’s so little of it. There’s so much literature to read. You could spend 10, 20 lives reading excellent books of all ages. But classical music starts with Monteverdi, and it ends with Béla Bartók or Sergei Prokofiev or Philip Glass. There are maybe 300 good music pieces, at the most. I don’t listen to rock or — I don’t even know the name of that music, what do they call it, blues?

EMILIEN CRESPO — Blues, rock’n’roll…
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — The Beatles are all right. I can go as far as the Beatles or even Elvis Presley. But beyond that, I don’t. Maybe I haven’t made enough of an effort.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What piece of classical music would you keep?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — “The Planets” by Gustav Holst. Do you know it? “Mercury,” “Jupiter.” There’s an English musician called Edward Elgar. The “Enigma Variations,” they are wonderful. Bach is fantastic. Scarlatti. If I was very, very rich I would have a built-in clavichord player. Somebody like Wanda Landowska. She was a very old lady who played harpsichord. But sometimes, that kind of music can get on your nerves, too — like Vivaldi. If I hear “The Four Seasons” again, I will jump out of that window.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Even as an Italian?
PEDRO FRIEDEBERG — For many years, I thought it was marvelous. But that happens to all art. When I was young, everybody had posters of Toulouse-Lautrec. Now, I think you tell a young person, “Toulouse-Lautrec,” and they say, “Is that a kind of lettuce?” They don’t know [anything] anymore.



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