The Art of Elias Friedensohn

The Art of Elias Friedensohn

Elias Friedensohn (1924–91) was a prescient painter. His classically-inspired representations of sexual struggle, shocking 35 years ago, have lost none of their power or pertinence. Long before botox, he took on our love affair with the Body Beautiful and our fantasies of eternal youth. He rendered the dream of love and the sufferings of the lovelorn with fierce wit and compassion. Above a skyscraper named “Mutual Trust,” his flying lovers soar and pull apart.

For Friedensohn, the need to communicate is both desperate and comic. His subjects whisper mysteriously to one another. They share secrets.They seek comfort on the telephone. Sometimes connected by industrial wire or root-like forms, his anxious figures foreshadow our dependence on the cell phone—our need for someone’s “hello” at the other end of the line.

Friedensohn rejected the notion that people could break out of their existentially given or willed isolation merely by invoking "sharing." We are alone, his paintings announce, with our blood and inner organs, our fingers counting money, our physical deterioration, and our bacchanals. We are alone even as we occupy space with others, even as we stroll down the beach with a companion or sit beside her in the airport lounge. Like his Witnesses (to the holocaust), we are alone struggling for speech—and for justice.

In Friedensohn’s work there is a lively tension between the universal and the particular.  While many of his figures are grounded in specific locales, others are semi-mythic forms or intentionally deracinated. The question of how we humans are different and how we are the same runs through four decades of his art. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his portrayals (in the late 70's and '80's) of Arabs and Jews. Moody markets and souks may be Arab or Jewish. His satiric treatments of both communities showcase vanity, arrogance, lust, paranoia, and rituals of relatedness and violence. We see in his Jewish and Arab subjects mirror images of suffering and foolishness.

Forty years ago, in his multi-media exhibit on the assassination of President McKinley, Friedensohn took on America 's surreal politics of violence and dubious justice. Dark humor belongs to the distinctive Friedensohnian tone of this project. In the paintings and three dimensional pieces, the victim and his assassin are linked by parallel dreams. The Courtroom and the Prison have common walls. Judges and jurors are given the same male, culturally neutral, expressionless face. And, unforgettably, "an assassination machine," like a game in a "penny arcade," tempts the observer to grab the cap pistol and gun down the president-as-enemy. Who among us can resist? As this seductive object reminds us, we are all villains, we are all victims.

Friedensohn’s airport paintings are perhaps the most prescient of his works and the spookiest. One large canvas, completed in 1990, is entitled "Terrorist at Heathrow." The terrorist is a half-hidden child, clutching a toy gun. Uncertainty and menace lurk in vast public places where individuals are alone with their vulnerabilities. These airports evoke the limbo in which we are living. We are in motion—perhaps half way around the world—yet waiting.  We are empowered by technology but confounded by the journey. We imagine death. Sitting on red plastic chairs, watching for signs that it is time to board, Friedensohn’s subjects may still dream of love. But the dream of peace eludes them.