Born in Brooklyn in 1935, Warner Friedman came of age as an artist during the 1950s and early 1960s, an era in which American painting redefined itself as an international cultural leader. Growing up in the Bronx, Friedman's talent for drawing was recognized with an award when he was just thirteen years old; the prize was additional drawing lessons. In high school, he was introduced to drafting classes, and subsequently enrolled in the engineering program at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree in engineering in 1957, Friedman accepted a position in the technical engineering department at the Curtiss-Wright Corporation in New Jersey. His stay there was short-lived, however, as the company's government contracts gradually diminished after World War II, resulting in the plant's closure.
Even while working as an engineer, Friedman continued to pursue his interest in the visual arts, registering for evening drawing courses at Pratt Institute taught by the respected illustrator Eugene Karlin (1918-2003). In September 1957, he was accepted into Cooper Union with a full scholarship, enabling him to study art full time for the next four years. To be close to school--and to the art scene of the time--Friedman moved to the lower East Side of Manhattan and also found a studio in the Bowery. Like many young painters at the time, he was fascinated with the work of the abstract expressionists who were living and working in the same neighborhood; and his paintings from those years reflect the influence of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. The Tenth Street coop galleries associated with this bohemian environment also provided Friedman with occasional opportunities to exhibit his work, and importantly, introduced him to the challenges of making a living as an artist.
By 1962, Friedman had not only graduated from Cooper Union, but also married. To support his family, he worked in the conservation department at the Museum of Modern Art, courtesy of his friend, Thornton Rockwell, today a noted conservator. Friedman also continued to exhibit his paintings, which he describes as "concrete abstractionist", at the Tenth Street galleries. As he emerged from the abstract expressionism of his early work, Friedman began to develop his own aesthetic voice. His clean-edged geometric forms from the mid-1960s and 1970s reveal the artist's admiration of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944 ), as well as the contemporary concerns that Friedman shared with colleagues like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. The artist’s preference for crisp lines and precise geometry remain evident in his more recent work, in which architectural forms, art historical references and shaped canvases combine to create a distinctive expressive imagery. The 1960s also included two significant exhibitions for Friedman: Small Recent Paintings at the Fischbach Gallery in New York in 1965, and Labyrinth Paintings at the Wadsworth-Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Connecticut in 1969.
The decade of the 1970s opened with a move to the Berkshires and new employment at the Wadsworth-Atheneum Museum, working again in conservation with Thornton Rockwell. Life outside of New York City brought many changes, including a growing family and an environment with more natural components. His paintings became larger and larger, always focused on basic geometric forms at 90-degree angles and completely flat surfaces. Illusions of reality were banned. During this decade, Friedman gradually began to exhibit his work at colleges and universities as well as participating in the Black, White and Grey exhibition at the Wadsworth-Atheneum.
At the end of the 1970s, Friedman began using multiple colors in his painting, causing “horizon lines to creep into the painting" at the junction of the different colors. By 1981, light and shadow had crept in as well, and Friedman's pure geometry evolved into investigations of light, shadow and color. In 1988, in his Homage to Sol LeWitt, Friedman explored a strikingly new concept by creating fourteen, two-dimensional shaped canvases that referenced LeWitt’s three-dimensional series called Open Cubes. Friedman’s series was an immediate success, selling out quickly and attracting attention from an even larger audience of viewers. It was also during these years that he attracted attention from several corporations, thereby breaking into a new market for his large-scale works.
Friedman's new direction in his professional life was echoed in his personal life in 1989 when he met his present wife, Janet Rickus, a still-life artist. By then, his work was receiving increasing attention in New York at the Schillay & Rehs gallery exhibition in 1991, and at museums such as the Museum of Art in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in 1993. In both cases, the works shown were large scale, imposing pieces featuring strong architectural elements combined with art historical references and sharply defined sunlight. Many of the paintings were as large as 8.5’ x 13’.
Increasingly, Friedman utilizes both models and photographs as the foundation for his paintings. He comments that the use of photographs is particularly useful because it captures the quality of light at a specific time of day, which allows him to maintain the integrity of the canvas as he envisions it. The large scale of the work, combined with architectural elements such as doors, fences or bridges, gives viewers the sense that they are experiencing a glimpse of a world just beyond them--and invites them to consider what a direct encounter with that world might be. For example, in the painting A Bend in the River, 2003, Friedman juxtaposes a view of the natural world through a window with an interior space containing a sunlit Mondrian painting; considerations about the relationship between inside and outside, between nature and art are inherent in this image, encouraging the viewer to study and reflect on the questions it might pose.
Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.