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Art, Cuisine, and the Family Friedman
This article by Pat Summers was published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 11, 1998. All rights reserved.
Maybe it’s a case of the more things change, the more
they stay the same. Or of life imitating art. Or appetizing poetic
justice. Or a delicious, not vicious, circle. Anyway, Marvin Friedman,
the West Trenton-based artist and illustrator, is once again at the
center of the food scene. Work by the long-time Gourmet Magazine
will share the limelight at an "Art and Cuisine" dinner at
Lambertville’s Church Street Bistro on Monday, February 16. Created
for the occasion, Friedman’s art will share the bill with chef David
Kiser’s five-course meal, more or less suggested by what Friedman
produced — which in turn was more or less inspired by a gourmet
dinner for a group of area artists at the Bistro last October. (Thus,
the "delicious circle.")
For nine visual artists selected for this, the Bistro’s second
and Cuisine" series, Kiser prepared a feast last fall. It began
with baked brie wrapped in filo with pear, cranberry chutney and
coulis; it progressed through soup to an entree of pan-roasted breast
of free-range chicken with rosemary, then a salad melange, and it
ended with triple creme chestnut pumpkin cheese cake with sauce
and Grand Marnier sabayon. All consumed by an artist who publicly
yearns for his mother’s borscht and brisket.
A rundown of Friedman’s current projects would also show monthly
profiles — his familiar image-with-text portraits — in the
Packet newspaper chain and his steady work toward a book of his
Suggested over the years by more than one agent who admired his
pieces, the book would collect Friedman’s "takes" on a wide
range of interesting and unusual people whom he has interviewed and
Not just an artist with high visibility, Friedman is also distinctive
to look at, starting with the signature suspenders he’s worn
I’m fat." His most distinctive braces are bright yellow tape
a gift from a Massachusetts relative. "People stop me on the
and ask where they can get ’em," he says. "If I had two dozen
pairs, I could retire tomorrow."
Exactly what the artist has produced to go on view at the Bistro for
a month must, like the menu for that Monday-night affair, remain a
secret until then. Only Chef Kiser and Robert Beck, the
who coordinates the series, can see the work. But knowing the kind
of art Friedman makes these days — mixed media collages and
portraits whose image and text both "show" his subjects —
chances are his Bistro work will be in the family.
Ah, family — possibly the operative word in Friedman’s oeuvre.
There’s his nuclear family, his extended family, his inspirational
family, his sometime-surrogate family — all significant others;
all figuring in his art.
With Sonny, his wife of 40-some years ("On a sweet summer’s night
I brought Sonny home to Chester to meet my folks. My grandmother held
Sonny’s hand to her cheek. Uncle Benny kissed her hand and my mother
held her close," he writes), Friedman now lives within hailing
distance of the Delaware River, up a hill from Route 29. His studio
is a former five-car garage near their home, a one-time summer place
for wealthy Trentonians. Parents of four grown children (daughters
Marcy and Michele; sons Stephen and Barry), the couple now dote on
their first grandchild, Noah, whom Friedman describes as "a
creation that nobody has ever seen before, whether from atoms or God,
that takes my breath and my cynicism away." His portraits often
start with his photos of subjects-to-be. The hand-lettered text that
accompanies each picture comes from his own memory, in the case of
friends and family, or his taped interviews with those he knows less
"He taught me how to make keys and to cut glass. The keys never
worked and the glass always broke. I hated all of it. I wouldn’t get
anything right because I wanted to be home drawing. I really don’t
know why he never kicked me in the ass. Yes, I do. He loved me,"
writes Friedman in his portrait of his father.
Anyone familiar with his work knows Friedman’s extended family. He
has painted and written about his father as a hardware store owner
in Chester, Pennsylvania, where Friedman and his older brother Alton
grew up, and countless others — his sisters and his cousins and
his aunts. Taken together, his portraits recreate a vanished,
world of Jews, all sympathetic characters thanks to Friedman, their
"That New Years after my father died I had great expectations
with a torrid voluptuous date," writes Friedman. "My mother
wept. I’m so lonely, she cried. Confused, my eyes tearing, I didn’t
know whether to leave or not to leave. Forty-five years later I don’t
remember anything about the torrid voluptuous date, but I’ve never
forgotten that I left."
And then, about his cousins, the Bookman girls: "I
was closest in age to Renee and she was perpetually teaching me how
to ask Ronnie Lachman out on a date or to the prom. She was also
teaching me how to dance, constantly reminding me not to look down
at my feet, but I wasn’t. I was trying to peek down her blouse. I
also desperately needed her advice on how to keep alive the gardenia
corsage I nervously bought for Ronnie 2-1/2 weeks before the
The artist names as his inspirational family two figures: French
painter Pierre Bonnard and American comedian Jack Benny. Why Bonnard?
"How can you explain love?" replies Friedman. Bonnard, creator
of domestic genre paintings and "the icon for his life,"
Friedman, "there’s something beyond illustration out there. He
works for me," he says.
"We broke into Bonnard’s house, above Cannes," confesses
obviously proud of this caper. Though Bonnard died in 1947, his house
was still there, and with Sonny as look-out, he made it through a
cyclone fence, and looked in windows, thrilled to see vestiges of
Bonnard’s paintings. He didn’t stretch his canvases, just tacked them
up and painted, often over the edges and onto the walls. That’s what
Friedman saw. He knew the house "inside and out" because so
much of it appeared in Bonnard’s pictures. "There’s still a green
metal table on his lawn and under a chair there’s a cat. That’s a
painting he did!"
"And Jack Benny’s right up there with Pierre Bonnard,"
asserts. He describes Benny as "the Jewish Icon," whose life
he has researched and whom he has cherished much of his life. In his
image-and-text portrait of Benny, he writes, "When we were in
L.A., we drove to Hillside Memorial Park to pay our respects. My
Sylvia said she never heard of anyone on vacation visiting a cemetary
Some of his subjects occupy Friedman’s time and emotion for months,
becoming, in effect, a surrogate family. The experience of one
portrait, a six-foot square collage of people and other images from
the life of a teenager killed in a car accident, was "like
another kid." It took him the best part of a year to complete,
from the first visit with her parents through the opening of a school
they built in her memory. The portrait now hangs in the building
Born in 1930, Friedman attended Philadelphia College of Art and,
in the 1950s, did magazine illustration for the likes of Saturday
Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, Playboy, The New Yorker and Boy’s
Life. "Lots of magazines then had four or five pieces of
he remembers. That was the good time, when he could pick and choose,
and with his family, he lived in a big house in Hopewell. Then came
television. Then fiction diminished. Then all the art directors seemed
to be 22 years old, and computer-graphics whiz-kids were in demand.
Then came a series of breakdowns, starting in the early 1970s. We
would call it clinical depression today, but for years, it was an
illness that had no name — just great uncertainty, mental pain
and paralysis, an inability to work. Finally, at the Carrier Clinic
in Belle Mead, Friedman met anti-depressants. Not quite Shazam! but
they made the difference. By the early ’80s he had started drawing
and painting to suit himself. That period marked the beginning of
his multi-media collages, which at first included scraps from letters
he had written to his family — that they had saved — during
his years of depression. In one newly-productive time span, he had
12 shows in 12 months.
He also began a 13-year stint as a freelance illustrator for Gourmet
Magazine. He settled into a pattern of visiting the restaurant of
the month and taking photos, from which he’d ultimately do paintings
to accompany each article. He tells great stories about the
places, chefs — and patrons, including Henry Kissinger and William
S. Paley. And although he often ate at the places memorialized in
his paintings, his restaurant visits made neither a cook, nor a French
cuisine aficionado, of him. Of such experiences, he recently wrote,
"It was all too precious and mannered and stylized."
However, the upcoming art and cuisine dinner at the Church Street
Bistro has none of that pretension, and already glows with a halo
effect. Early in their acquaintance, Chef Kiser identified himself
as a Friedman fan who had made a collage of the Gourmet illustrations.
The Bistro suddenly became a 14-star restaurant in Friedman’s book.
— Pat Summers
Street, Lambertville, 609-397-4383. The dinner, with art by Marvin
Friedman and Chef David Kiser’s five-course dinner is open to all.
Reservations preferred. Cost is $25 excluding drinks and tip.
February 16, 6 p.m.
Each diner receives an autographed menu with a photo of the art work
produced for the occasion.
And each month’s art work remains on view at the Bistro at least till
the next dinner.
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This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.