A New Yorker who became a professional painter after a lengthy career in the postal service, Arnold Friedman was an independent-minded artist who created a distinctive body of work that set him apart from the artistic mainstream of his day. Recognized for his love of color and design, as well as for his penchant for technical experimentation, his work has been championed by some of the most influential critic and scholars of modern American art, among them Clement Greenberg, Thomas B. Hess, Hilton Kramer, and William C. Agee.
Born to Hungarian Jewish parents in Corona, Queens, Friedman was educated in local public schools, after which he enrolled at City College with the intention of becoming a lawyer. However, in 1891, he dropped out of school and took a job wth the U.S. Postal Service to help support his recently widowed mother and his siblings. His job at the post office would sustain him financially for years to come.
Freidman began drawing at an early age. From 1905 until 1908 he took night classes at the Art Students League of New York under the tutelage of the realist painter Robert Henri, whose belief that artists should depict their immediate environment exerted a key influence on his outlook. Henri also played a role in introducing Friedman to the work of French impressionists such as Edouard Manet. Upon completing his studies, Friedman took a leave from his job and went to Paris, where, over the course of six months, he enhanced his knowledge of Impressionism. He also familiarized himself with Post-Impressionism, finding himself drawn to the work of Pierre Bonnard and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Friedman also harbored a fascination with the pointillist technique of George Seurat and Camille Pissarro––a method of applying daubs of pure hues to achieve a high degree of luminosity. Friedman’s familiarity with contemporary modes of expression––including Cubism––was further enhanced in 1913, when he was exposed to examples of vanguard European art at the Armory Show. For several years thereafter, Friedman focused his creative energies on semi-abstract landscapes that, in their lustrous hues and two-dimensional forms, linked his work with Synchromism and Orphism.
In about 1920, Friedman modified his aesthetic approach. Returning to his earlier concern for representation but mindful of the lessons of modern art, he developed a formalist style that he applied to works such as Snowscape (1926; Museum of Modern Art, New York). Friedman’s first one-man show, held at the Bourgeois Gallery in New York in 1925, featured portraits, figure studies, landscapes, and still lifes that captured the “latent power of nature, of human beings, of flowers and fruits” with an “uncanny directness." Although critical reception to his early work was mixed, Friedman went on to have solo exhibitions at other Manhattan venues, including the Kraushaar, J. B. Neumann, and Marquis Galleries, and he participated, as well, in group shows at the Society of Independent Artists. During these years, Friedman juggled two separate lives: in a later interview, he recalled that when he was “behind the money-order window at Station Y, Sixty-seventh Street and Third Avenue,” he never made his co-workers aware of his artistic activity, although he sometimes made sketches of the various customers who came to his wicket.
Following his retirement from the postal service in 1933, Friedman began painting on a full time basis, going on to produce his most significant work. Ensconced in his attic studio in Corona, he continued to paint stylized figure subjects such as Unemployable, which was acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1940. Taking his cue from the impressionist and post-impressionist styles he encountered earlier in his career, he also began painting the semi-abstract landscapes that would later secure his reputation in American art circles. Employing dry pigment with a palette knife rather than a brush, Friedman developed a distinctive stippling technique that imbued his oils with intricate textured effects and with what one commentator described as an “unforgettable visionary message.”