Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Art Set: The Art of Martin

Marcel Duchamp and Martin Friedman, 1965.
The Art Set: The Art of Martin
by Charlie Scheips

22 years ago, in 1990, Martin Friedman resigned after serving for 28 years brilliantly directing the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The Walker was founded by Thomas Barlow Walker, a lumber baron, who more than 125 years before had built a gallery adjacent to his home to install his art collection and invited his fellow citizens to come for a visit.

Formally established in 1927, the Walker began its long commitment to contemporary art in the 1940s when Mrs. Gilbert Walker made it possible for Center to purchase works by the modern masters of that era. The world-class institution we know today — one of the great art centers of the United States for not only the visual but the performing arts as well — began with the arrival of Martin Friedman as its director in 1962.
The galleries in T. B. Walker's home, circa 1904.
Walker Art Center, circa 1971.
Friedman not only created one of the most exciting artistic centers of the era but also, thanks to the many thematic traveling exhibitions he organized of contemporary art, helped establish and propel the careers of some of the greatest cultural figures of the second half of the 20th century. Since that time, many museums and cultural centers across the country modeled their mission on the Walker’s programmatic mission. 

Mickey and Martin Friedman.
After his retirement, Martin and his wife and creative partner Mickey, soon moved to New York and began yet another chapter of their culturally infused life together. Last Thursday night, more than 300 luminaries of the contemporary art world gathered at the Prince George Ballroom on 27th Street for cocktails and dinner celebrating Martin’s incredible 60 year career in the arts.  

Martin has never been one to be idle so during the past decade he has served as an advisor to the art program of the Madison Square Park Conservancy among his many other activities. Thursday night’s event supported the Conservancy’s Mad Sq. Art program and raised over $1 million towards the fund of the newly created Martin Friedman Endowment that will in part support a curatorship in his name.

Martin is beloved by the scores of the artists he has championed during his long and distinguished career. Notable for his eclectic eye for talent and imaginative exhibition program while running the Walker, everyone had stories to tell about how Martin and Mickey had changed their lives and artistic careers. I arrived with David Hockney who had flown in from London especially for the occasion.

No sooner had we entered the cocktail reception when I spotted Chuck Close, Lawrence Weiner, Joel Shapiro, John Baldesarri, Christo, Claes Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras, Cindy Sherman, John Currin, Rachel Feinstein, Frank Stella, Mark di Suvero, Frank Gehry and dozens more. 
John Baldessari, Chuck Close, and Lawrence Weiner.
On either side of the long hallway leading to the Prince George Ballroom were large blow-up photographs of Martin with many of the artist he championed over his long careers — my favorite though was the earliest — a black and white photo of Martin with Marcel Duchamp taken in the early 1960s, illustrating the span of his amazing career. 

The dinner began with a welcome from Madison Square Park President Debbie Landau and Board Chairman David Berliner. At most art charity dinners the actual creative types are usually parceled out one or two to a table. That was certainly not the case at this dinner for Martin Friedman.
Debbie Landau and Frank Stella. Lisa Phillips and Nessia Pope.
At my table was Lucas Samaras, Chuck Close, David Hockney as well as Hockney’s assistant Jean Pierre Goncalves di Lima, John Reinhold and Pace Gallery’s founding couple Arne and Milly Glimcher and Pace Director Douglas Baxter. Surveying the ballroom one could quickly see how many artists had come out to honor Martin — not to mention the scores of leaders of the arts community some of whom such as Whitney Director Adam Weinberg and Hirshorn Director Richard Koshalek who both cut their teeth working under Martin’s leadership early in their careers. Both Weinberg and Koshalek gave entertaining testaments to Martin (and Mickey!) as did the Walker’s current director Olga Viso.

After testimonials by Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella and Christo, as a surprise was announced that Phillip Glass would perform his hauntingly beautiful Metamorphosis 2 piano composition. The crowd listened in utter silence save for the hypnotic music filling the room. 
Phillip Glass performing Metamorphosis 2 piano composition.
Chuck Close spoke of Martin’s uncompromising commitment to promoting young artists saying that it had been Friedman who had purchased the very first work by the now world-renowned artist. While others spoke of Martin’s high standards and determination, David Hockney told the audience that he believed that one of the key’s to Friedman’s accomplishments was that Martin is a first class “worrier” insuring that any project was thought out thoroughly and to the high standards that have marked in notable achievements.

As I listened to all of these tributes, I realized that my own life might have taken a very different path without Martin Friedman. In 1984, Friedman’s brilliant Hockney Paints the Stage exhibition traveled to the Museum of Contemporary in Chicago where I was then starting my career in the arts. Hockney and I became fast friends during the week of the show’s opening — a year later I moved to Los Angeles to become his assistant. From that time forward I have been lucky to call Martin and Mickey my friends.
Chuck Close gives his tribute to Martin.
David Hockney.
Martin Friedman getting his pulse imported for Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's light piece.
I am sure that every table had similar stories being exchanged. You didn’t feel that anyone wanted t the evening to end — more a large family reunion and love fest — rather than a sterile fundraising event. The food, prepared by SD26 Events was delicious and each guest received a small wooden sculpture by Ursula von Rydingsvard. As the evening drew to a close artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer created an interactive light piece in the ballroom pairing the heartbeats of both Mickey and Martin to create duet of pulsating rhythms synchronized to the light show. 

All the signage from place cards to gift bag featured Martin’s name in black bold capital letters with the ART in “Martin” contrasted in fire engine red. Not only a witty piece of branding but also a visual embodiment of how the art of the past six decades as been the central part of this extraordinary man’s life.  

Martin Friedman was one of the most incredible impresario’s of the art of our time on the level of the Ballet Russe’s Serge Diaghilev during the early years of the 20th century. For like Diaghilev, Martin embraced all the arts. The Walker today is among the most visited museums in the country. 
To borrow composer Virgil Thomson’s tribute to legendary museum director Chick Austin during the 1930s and 1940s, Martin Friedman is, like Austin, “a whole cultural movement in one man, and in the full sense of the word, irresistible.”

The history of art is made by artists, but without the existence of equally creative visionaries such as Martin Friedman the world at large would have much more difficulty keeping up with the changing tides of contemporary art, music, media arts and performance.

Bravo Martin! The art world has given you your very own Diamond Jubilee.
Judith Shea, Cindy Sherman, Yvonne Force Villareal, and Garland Hunter.
John Baldessari and Richard Koshalek.
Miriam Kelen and Richard Flood.
Paul Kasmin. Philip Glass.
David Hockney and Arne Glimcher.
Carol LeWitt, David Meitus, and Judy Dayton.
Richard Armstrong and Laura Paulson. Sarah Lewis, Lisa Phillips, and Adam Weinberg.
Martin Friedman and Agnes Gund.
Peter Shelton and Richard Deacon. Martin Friedman and Mark di Suvero.
Nora Halpern and John Baldessari.
Christo. Jan Schall, Julian Zugazagoitia, and Ursula von Rydingsvard.
Toby Devan Lewis, John Reinhold, Molly Epstein, and Barbara Gladstone.
Kathlene Gilje, Robert Lobe, and Lowery Stokes Sims. Ari Wiseman and Laura Paulson.
Martin Friedman, Tom Hill, Richard Armstrong, and Paul Kasmin.
Photographs by Ben Gabbe & Carly Otness/ & & Charlie Scheips.