New York

Elias Friedensohn

Terry Dintenfass Gallery

Elias Friedensohn’s oil paintings connect with the work of others who seem—to me—to be involved with the “innocent modernism” of Puvis de Chavannes. In particular, they remind me of the work of Bruno Civitico, whose paintings are also technically adept, historically evocative, and philosophically—esthetically—marginal.

Friedensohn’s color and composition, besides bringing to mind Puvis’ last gasp of Mediterranean classicism in the industrial age, also appear to be about the kind of deep space that occurs in the paintings of Tiepolo. In nearly all of Friedensohn’s pictures figures float in the sky, in an atmosphere as clear as the Adriatic’s. Color is keyed to the nuances of flesh tones, but activated by little bits of local color in a way which reinforces one’s impression that these paintings are texts for “connoisseur.”

If one wants to go on about tonal subtlety and the delicate convergence of ground plane with picture plane—as in The Mystic Marriage’s use of ellipses—there is a lot to look at in Friedensohn’s work. But I found myself, when confronted with these paintings, thinking about iconography rather than plasticity.

In the iconography of Friedensohn’s paintings, one observes the relocation of conventionalized “spirituality” that separates the contemporary bourgeoisie from the classical tradition that the bourgeoisie habitually seek to bring to their own defense. For Friedensohn, floating in the sky is about fucking, and in that he reminds us of the contemporary inaccessibility of Tiepolo’s terminology much more than he suggests continuity with it. For Friedensohn, and by extension, for his audience—but not quite, surely, for Tiepolo—transcendence and orgasm are one.

Furthermore, in Friedensohn’s work copulation is exclusively a male affair. Women are very explicitly objects, sometimes—as if to confirm this—partially amputated, like people in de Chirico. Only rarely does a—limp—penis peep out coyly in a gallery full of full breasts and shaved mounds of Venus. Certainly garters and high-heeled shoes are sexy, but they can also be used — as they are here—to reinforce a myth to which people of ambitious sensibility no longer wish to contribute.

Art such as this does, however, have its place in the imagination of our time. It belongs with the combination of super jockery and conventional good taste that reaches its apotheosis in the poetry of Robert Lowell. And this brings me to a last question. Why, I wonder, is it that work like Friedensohn’s is always preoccupied with sex but at the same time short on glamour? The women in Friedensohn’s paintings, tarted up though they are, remain irredeemably homely. Could it be that what this sort of work is really about is the formulation of a metaphorical dialectic for a threatened class? I think so. Friedensohn’s is “naughty” art for those who want kinky fucking that doesn’t threaten middle-class security. Weimar, after all, was intended as a bourgeois state.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe