In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Abstract Expressionism exerted a gravitational pull on artists across the United States. Some found the call irresistible; others doubled down on their more representative work. And then there was Milwaukee artist Joseph Friebert (1908–2002).
Like many of his Social Realist contemporaries, Friebert had spent the early years of his career capturing the loneliness, despair, and struggles of war and the Depression. But in that transformative period of the late 1940s, and at the urging of his wife, artist Betsy Ritz Friebert (1910–1963), he decided to try something new. In the decade and change to follow, Friebert developed a style that quietly tested the border between the figurative and the abstract, a style that would go on to win him international attention in the form of a coveted spot in the 1956 Venice Biennale alongside some of the most successful American artists of the time, including Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Willem De Kooning.
Friebert’s paintings from this period merge centuries-old techniques with a modern vision. His particular method of layering oils (or “indirect painting”), gleaned from studying the Old Masters, is applied to urban and natural forms so that they glow, fragment, and dissolve into fathomless depths. His palettes are somber and intricate: hues of brown and orange are infused and interwoven with striking notes of green, red, yellow, and blue. Though Friebert never embraced pure abstraction, there are many other kinds of innovation to be found in these rich, subtle works.
The journey of an artistic practice is messy yet beautiful, often a fusion of conflicting circumstances. Struggle, growth, failure, success, insecurity, confidence, criticism, praise, rejection, and recognition are experienced by every artist with the gift of a lengthy career. Friebert experienced all throughout his. During his lifetime he exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Corcoran Art Gallery, D.C., The Art Institute of Chicago, The Walker Art Center, among others. Today his artwork can be found in over 44 museums across the country, as well as private collections nationally and abroad.
Image: Joseph Friebert (1908-2002), City Reflections, oil on masonite, 30 x 48 inches, n.d.