Joseph Friebert, A Life in Art begins with a small painting of a dapper young man in a green suit and matching hat, worn slightly askew. Friebert was 28 when he painted the self-portrait in 1936.
Friebert came to art as a profession relatively late in life. He was working as a pharmacist for his father’s drugstore in Milwaukee when the Great Depression hit, cutting his work hours there in half. He used his new free time to explore art, and he ultimately completed degrees in art from Milwaukee State Teachers College and UW-Madison.
As the paintings on exhibit at the Museum of Wisconsin Art show, Friebert used his artwork to process a lot of history, much of it grim. His socialist father influenced his philosophical perspective, and early modernist American painter Stuart Davis guided his artistic approach with the advice, “The artist has not simply (to look) out the window, he has to step into the street.”
Friebert adopted and adhered to the artistic mantra of “feeling over facts.” In his work, he felt his way through both world wars, the Holocaust, the Great Depression, the black civil rights movement and the Cold War.
The hard times and social struggles depicted in much of the work in MOWA’s retrospective are coated with soup-like glazes that are scraped or rubbed to expose the painted ground coats. The dark colors beneath the glaze convey a level of intensity reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s work.
Part of the exhibition witnesses what life was like in Milwaukee circa 1940. “Two Lines, One Job” focuses on the backs of men waiting in line like cogs in the gears of the Great Depression. “Tavern Front” and “Chicken Market” depict building exteriors, with dark figures gathered around them in the cold. Outside, there’s a strong sense of isolation, but the dim interior lights provide a glimmer of hope. In 1939’s “State Street Sadie,” obscured faces find reprieve from the struggles of daily life as they watch a voluptuous burlesque dancer.
Friebert further explores the human condition with pieces such as “Refugees” from 1955 and “Picnic” from 1966. In these paintings, huddled masses are faceless but painted with an empathetic touch. Their obscured forms become anonymous vessels of human emotion.
During the 1950s, Friebert came under the influence of abstract expressionism. His work in that style was shown in the 1956 Venice Biennale with artists such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. Friebert’s abstract expressionist paintings seem like the mass of humanity that he’d been painting for the last decades but transformed into abstract structures.
The retrospective ends with a jolting departure from his other work. The angst that saturated Friebert’s work for 40 years is followed by colorful paintings of nature, such as “Irises” (1970).
“Cedar Creek,” the painting on Friebert’s easel at his death in 2002, is filled with purples and blues dancing on a reflected lake surface. A cottage, partly obscured by trees, is in the background.
Perhaps that warm, glowing cottage was waiting for him.
Joseph Friebert, A Life in Art continues through Oct. 7 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend. For more information, call 262-334-9638 or go online to wisconsinart.org.