Martin Friedman: Modern Dreamscapes

Martin Friedman: Modern Dreamscapes

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Martin Friedman (1896-1981) took part in the mass
immigration to Ellis Island, experienced by 12 million people between 1892-1924, at the age of nine years old. His upbringing was modest, with his parents described as lower-middle class, moving to the United States in homes of financial success. In an interview with Dorothy Seckler for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archive of American Art, Friedman recalled being the only “foreign-born” family in the neighborhood and not speaking any English while attending school in Yonkers, New York.                       

Living between New York and Massachusetts in his lifetime, Friedman was introduced to art while in New York City at the age of 16. Two years into working a tiresome factory job, Friedman was introduced to the New York Academy of Art at the recommendation of a friend. He was accepted into the school at the age of 16. While being the main provider for his family, Friedman attended art school at night after working 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week. Eventually, he was unable to juggle the load, quitting his factory job and starting to work as an assistant at a commercial illustration company. Within a year of working as an assistant, Friedman would find success in working in commercial art for 6 months of the year and freelance for the remainder. 

Martin Friedman found his artistic inspiration in unlikely places. One might think that he was painting en plein air, looking out at the landscape as he depicted it. However, Friedman noted distinct influences on his process, emphasizing that he was unable to paint outside and instead relied on his own imagination. “Once I stopped painting outdoors that was it, because I realized (painting indoors) was for me. Within the space of my four walls I could visualize and be in a world of my own, a wonderfully contained world that I cherish today.”


 “Within the space of my four walls, I could visualize and be in a world of my own.” -Martin Friedman, 1965

Friedman, like many artists, was also influenced by music. Drawn to classical music, Friedman experienced a kind of synesthesia between the music and his painting. He recounts hearing Brahm’s Third Symphony and letting the composition of his work reflect the feeling and images the music communicated to him. This was an additional reason Friedman found working from his studio was best, allowing him to listen to music and combine music and painting. Much like Harry Hilson or Wassily Kandinsky, Friedman viewed the process of painting as spiritual. 

Other inspiration for Friedman came from his early life in Hungary. Friedman recalls childhood trips between Hungary and Italy by boat, where he found a sense of musicality within the rhythm of the boat’s movement. Later, he would communicate this sensation through his painting. “I remember sitting on the boat at night, and all the different rhythms -- the paddlewheel chugging away at the water, the rhythm of the waves; and the rhythm dancing -- that really got me, really: around and around were these wide skirts, and the swish of the skirts and the odor of the place, the sound of the music, and the rhythm of this around and around.”

Friedman looked to other artists for influence, as well. American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) was his greatest inspiration, using a similar technique of painting using thick application of paint with a palette knife. Using pure pigment, Friedman would layer pigment and scrape away layers, in an attempt to avoid craquelure overtime and allow for multiple colors to penetrate the surface. He described his own work of having an “inner glow,” even those with dark color schemes seeming to have a lightness within. Starting with landscapes in the 1940s, Friedman viewed his work as transitioning between “dramatic” to “lyrical.” 


Friedman’s work can be distinguished into three categories: dark and broody abstract paintings, ethereal landscapes, and figure studies.  Many of his abstract paintings are reminiscent of French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon.  Friedman’s ethereal imaginary landscapes have soft edges that give them a floating misty feel.  However, unlike impressionist painters Friedman used vibrant colors and consistently emphasizes the sky over the land.

Friedman hated painting figures, and only painted three nudes in his lifetime.  Many of Friedman’s dreamscapes include abstracted figures.  He acknowledged these figures, but argued that they are not modeled after any being.  “The figures, for me, aren't -- they're not really meant as figures by themselves. To me, a figure is incorporated… They usually form part of the pattern of the rest of the work.” Rather than being an element of the composition, the figures would appear to Friedman while painting. Sometimes they would seemingly emerge from the paint, without Friedman intending to create a recognizable form. Dorothy Seckler, his interviewer, remarked that “it's almost like the painter is a witness rather than an actor in the scene.”

Martin Friedman first showed his art at the Brown and Lambertson Galleries in New York in 1932. Thinking that his art was too insignificant, Friedman did not attend the exhibit and went on to take a 10 year hiatus from gallery showings. Other places he showed at included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Carnegie Institute of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, American Artists Congress, the World’s Fair in New York, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and many more, both nationally and internationally. He was awarded highly, receiving at least half a dozen medals and recognitions. He was a member of Woodstock Art Association, the Federation of Modern Painters & Sculptors, and Audubon Artists. At Sheafer + King Modern, we currently have 27 pieces of Martin Friedman’s work  and look forward to celebrating his 50+ year career. 


Oral history interview with Martin Friedman, 1965 Sept. 3-Sept. 5. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

January 11, 2023 — Hailey Younkin



isaac said:

very interesting!

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