New York

Arnold Friedman

Salander-O’Reilly Galleries

Arnold Friedman (1874–1946) is a member of the generation that includes Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley. Although his accomplishment is comparable to theirs, he remains largely unknown, for there have been no books and few museum exhibitions about his work. Friedman began to paint at an early age, but he did not have any formal studies in painting until he enrolled in the Art Students League when he was 32. Two years later he traveled to Europe, and after his return to New York he became involved with the Independent Artists group in 1910, as both exhibition organizer and artist, and was a founding member of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. (Other founding members included John Sloan, William Glackens, Charlesand Maurice Prendergast, and Joseph Stella, and such European expatriates as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia.) Although Friedman participated actively in the SIA between 1917 and 1923 (and again between 1936 and 1941), he was an intensely shy, introspective man who worked most of his life in isolation. Unlike Dove or Hartley, he never had any patrons; and yet, despite a full-time job in a post office and family responsibilities, he found a way to paint. Sadly, the little attention he got during his life evaporated in the early ’50s, partly because of the mishandling of his estate and the many years it took for his children to legally wrest control of it from a dealer.

The exhibition included paintings, drawings, and watercolors. Although this was the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Friedman’s work yet held, it still didn’t give a full enough sense of the breadth of his accomplishment. The bulk of the work was from the ’30s and ’40s; work from 1905 to 1910 and from 1920 to 1930 made up the rest of the show. During the ’30s he concentrated mostly on portraits, in which Clement Greenberg observed the influence “of the Flemish primitives, and then again Ingres.” During the ’40s, his landscapes approached the threshhold of allover abstraction. Throughout, he painted still lifes, which, like the landscapes and portraits, resist the lapse of imagination that results in tiresome style and habit. It was a shame that no work from 1910 to 1920 was included. Friedman went to Paris in 1908, a year after Dove but four years before Hartley. There he encountered the works of the Post-Impressionists and, one suspects, of Pierre Bonnard. He also worked in a mode related to Synchromism and the Orphism of Robert Delaunay. Over the course of his career, Friedman sustained a freshness of approach that both invigorates and transforms the influence of Post-Impressionism and the Flemish primitives.

In the late landscapes space is flattened out, and natural forms are depicted as large, abstract shapes within symmetrical compositions. Through Friedman’s technique of slowly building up a thick, rough, granular surface, light and color become subtly shifting, palpable presences. In his still lifes the artist usually chose as his subject a vase of flowers placed before a painting on a wall. What distinguishes his still lifes from all others of this genre is that the painting within the painting resembles the kind of allover abstractions that Jackson Pollock and others would not begin doing until after Friedman’s death.

Empty of people and filled with a reticent yet sensuous light, the still lifes and landscapes seem emblematic of Fried-man’s isolation. He had a habit of inscribing a statement on the back of many of his works. Flowers in a Gray Pot, ca. 1942–46, bears the inscription, “A young woman who escaped a smallpox epidemic in a small European town and whose skin was smooth and clear was pointed at with derision and scorn by others who caught it—.” Friedman was scorned much of his life, and it is a tragedy that his work still remains unknown, for the paintings are an important milestone in the early history of American Modernism. A sustained examination of every phase of his career and life is in order. Arnold Friedman deserves a major museum retrospective.

John Yau