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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

artist

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

"Art

and Cuisine" series, Kiser prepared a feast last fall. It began

with baked brie wrapped in filo with pear, cranberry chutney and

raspberry

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

caramel

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

full-page

profiles — his familiar image-with-text portraits — in the

Packet newspaper chain and his steady work toward a book of his

profiles.

Suggested over the years by more than one agent who admired his

individual

pieces, the book would collect Friedman’s "takes" on a wide

range of interesting and unusual people whom he has interviewed and

portrayed.

Not just an artist with high visibility, Friedman is also distinctive

to look at, starting with the signature suspenders he’s worn

"since

I’m fat." His most distinctive braces are bright yellow tape

measures,

a gift from a Massachusetts relative. "People stop me on the

street

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

artist-intermediary

who coordinates the series, can see the work. But knowing the kind

of art Friedman makes these days — mixed media collages and

two-part

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

wondrous

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

well.

"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,

close-knit

world of Jews, all sympathetic characters thanks to Friedman, their

fond chronicler.

"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

perpetually

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

prom."

The artist names as his inspirational family two figures: French

"intimiste"

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,"

convinced

Friedman, "there’s something beyond illustration out there. He

works for me," he says.

"We broke into Bonnard’s house, above Cannes," confesses

Friedman,

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,"

Friedman

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

cousin

Sylvia said she never heard of anyone on vacation visiting a cemetary

(sic)."

Some of his subjects occupy Friedman’s time and emotion for months,

becoming, in effect, a surrogate family. The experience of one

commissioned

portrait, a six-foot square collage of people and other images from

the life of a teenager killed in a car accident, was "like

adopting

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

entrance.

Born in 1930, Friedman attended Philadelphia College of Art and,

beginning

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

fiction,"

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

idiosyncratic

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

Art & Cuisine, Church Street Bistro, 11 Coryell

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.

Monday,

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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