Martin Friedman, the director of the Walker Art Center from 1961 to 1990, passed away May 9, 2016, at age 90. Here, Detroit Institute of Arts Director Emeritus Graham Beal remembers his mentor and colleague.
Martin Friedman (1925-2016): A Personal Recollection*
“Come and work for me and I’ll teach you how we do things in this country,” said Martin Friedman over the ‘phone. When I reminded Martin of this in one of our last evenings together, he was shocked. “Did I really say that? How arrogant.” I demurred.
In 1976 I was 29 years old, a recent immigrant from England, and in my third year of directing the art gallery at Washington University in St. Louis. Early in my tenure there I had visited Martin at the Walker on one of my trips to Minneapolis - my wife’s hometown. Martin was amazingly generous with his time and even parked me in an office while he and his assistant gathered material for this recent immigrant on such things as the AFA and other contacts that I no longer recall. After a bit of to-and-fro-ing caused by my wife’s Ph.D. work at “Wash U” we made the move in February 1977 and I spent the next six years at Walker - one as curator; five as chief curator. It was an exhilarating, exhausting, infuriating, revelatory time and at the center of all of it, of course, was Martin. The curatorial offices in the original Barnes building were laid out in such a way that Martin walked by them every time he left his office. They had solid doors set in glass walls separating the admin pool. Martin liked the doors to be open and did not appreciate the blinds being drawn. Every so often, Martin would stick his head through the door and ask his trademark question “Learning a lot?” That, for Martin was the purpose of everything - the expansion of knowledge and understanding; both professional and personal.
At the time of my arrival, the Walker was fully formed. Martin had taken over from Harvey Arneson in 1961 and, at a time when art museums were very much about painting and sculpture, he quickly moved to expand the Walker’s remit from the visual arts to fully embrace film, the performing arts, architecture and design. By the end of the decade the Walker was the prototype of what we have come to expect from our art museums (and not just those dedicated to contemporary art): a wide array of programs that embraces various disciplines. But in the ‘70s it was rare to see artists as disparate as Merce Cunningham, Randy Newman, Laurie Anderson, and the Korean National Theater on the same stage - let alone one in an art museum. The exhibitions Martin himself organized were also ahead of the game. London; the New Scene (1965) included David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Howard Hodgkin; Light/Motion/Edge (1967) was the first major international exhibition of artists working with light, motion and technology, and featured, among others, Chryssa, Nam June Paik, and Otto Piene. Two years later 14 Sculptors: The Industrial Edge explored aspects of Minimalism. Early acquisitions included work by Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, and Lee Bontecou. The new Walker Art Center building designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes opened in 1969. A minimalist masterpiece, it’s one of Barnes’s finest buildings and Barnes himself was always quick to credit the significance of working for clients who knew what they wanted; the use of the plural here being particularly apposite as Martin’s wife Mildred (always called Mickey), a specialist in architecture and design, was with him every step of the way. She edited the house magazine, Design Quarterly and, as curator of architecture and design, organized many exhibitions.
Martin was, to say the least, a stickler for detail. Everything from the exact shade of white paint to the wording of an exhibition announcement was subject to intense scrutiny. All of us who worked for Martin know what it’s like to slave over a manuscript for weeks only to have Martin return the draft, the typed text almost obliterated by extensive and complicated edits and comments - usually in red ink. “GG!” for example, meant “glittering generality” - clever-sounding but unrevealing. He loathed “artforumese” and wanted, he once told me, essays to read as if they had come from The New Yorker. “And they don't have illustrations,” he added. “No, but we do” I retorted. “It’s good discipline,” was - for him - the clinching argument. But he never lost sight of the overall goal of writing and once handed back a relatively unscathed manuscript with a comment that while it was well-written, he still didn’t understand why I valued this particular artist so much. Back to the scriptorium. On another occasion he told me the opening paragraph of a lengthy catalogue essay (Wiley Territory) was boring. Irked, I set out to write a ‘parody’ of Bob Hughes’ writing whose art criticism I admired above all others (and still do). My colleague, curator Lisa Lyons, was laughing as I read it out to her and Martin, passing by, asked, “What’s so funny?” The new opening paragraph, I told him. “Read it!” I did. “That’s great. Keep it.” I did.
Martin’s original aim was to be an artist and following graduation from the University of Washington, and a masters from U.C.L.A he taught art at a community college. A master raconteur with a special line in self-deprecation, Martin liked to tell of the night thieves broke into his college art gallery and stole a number of works of art. Hurrying down to the gallery Martin knew, he said, that his days as an artist were over when he saw his painting hanging safely on the wall, but gaps on each side where others’ works had been taken. It wasn’t quite like that but Martin attributed his trajectory as as curator and highly curatorial director to his artistic sensibilities. His activities could be seen, he once remarked, as conceptualizing his artistic bent. It was all about exploration, looking, seeking, taking risks - the Human Condition.
Martin had earned a reputation of keeping his curators on a very short leash. Assigning exhibition topics, controlling acquisitions, etc. That may have been the case earlier, I don’t know, but it was definitely not my experience. Martin had in his office a cheap plastic sign; on it the words Ayez l’obligeance de me parler avec douceur, sans elever le ton et sans me contrarier en aucune manière. (He gave it to me when I became a director and I am looking at it now as I write.) It’s funny. Martin the legendary tyrant. But the real joke lay elsewhere. Martin was driven. He was forceful, opinionated, and intimidating in discussion but the last thing he actually wanted was meek compliance. He wanted ideas, opinions, conviction, and vigorous debate. Each year he would demand of the curators a list of exhibition ideas that would then be discussed at length round the table in Martin’s office. For several years mine contained Jim Dine’s name. In what turned out to be my final full year at the Walker, I dropped Jim from my list. Martin noticed and asked why. Because the idea hadn’t gone anywhere for several years. Martin said he thought the time was right and urged me to think of something other than a straightforward retrospective. Jim Dine: Five Themes, opened two years later. So, whose idea was it? Much earlier in my tenure, Martin said, “You like Californian art, how about doing a show on X?” “I think Y is more interesting right now.” “Then give me a proposal.” Again, two years later, Wiley Territory opened. It was definitely not of mixed parentage.
Every so often - usually to do with a major exhibition - Martin would ask me to go into the office to work with him on a Saturday and after a few hours application the conversation, as the saying goes, became general. He once asked me how I saw myself progressing in my career. Like you, I told him; becoming a director and dealing with art. “I don’t think that’s going to be possible,” he said, and outlined the growing complexity of running a major institutions. Becoming a director, he explained, increasingly means stepping away from the art. Perhaps it was in this same conversation when he told me that while he got all the credit, he couldn’t have done anything without the long-serving head of finance, Don Bormann who retired in the mid-eighties and who’d probably be called COO today. The one topic he never discussed was his early years in Pittsburgh. Occasionally he would give a little disquisition on a Yiddish word revealing the tip of an iceberg and, when I took two weeks vacation to drive my mother and stepfather across the midwest to the Rockies he said in subdued tones, “You’re very good to your parents. I wasn’t very nice to mine.” A candidate for a senior development position completely blew himself out of the water when he asked Martin , “So! How does a nice boy from Pittsburgh come to be running the Walker?” If looks could kill!
Martin’s oft-noted drive for perfection was combined with a sort of impatience that didn’t always help things along. One day I accompanied Martin down to the technicians' work-rooms and we simultaneously saw a big poster - new - on the wall that listed “Murphy’s Twenty Laws.” The first of course was “Anything that can go wrong, will.” The second had been heavily underlined in black marker pen: “We never have time to do it right but we always have time to do it over.” Martin glared around the room and finally looked at me, the glare still in place. Then, without the others in the room being able to see, he lifted one of his eyebrows and exhibited the slightest of smiles before turning, without comment, to the purpose of our excursion. When I was overseeing the installation of the Guggenheim’s Rothko retrospective, Martin had approved the design and colors and more-or-less left me to get on with it. The day before the opening, I came down with a really bad bout of bronchitis. I went in to finish the installation (it was not unusual for the curator of a major show at Walker to be finishing the lighting in the final gallery even as the preview members entered the first) but Martin sent me home as soon as he saw me. Later that day, Martin went down to supervise in my place and immediately decided that the first room, fully installed with dozens of works, wasn’t right. The wall color did not work well with the early “Surrealist” pieces. He ordered everything taken down, the walls painted a slightly different shade of taupe, and everything reinstalled.
A prominent feature of my last weeks at the Walker was planning the installation of a group of Rothko paintings given by the Rothko Foundation. I decided to create a sort of mini-Houston chapel an octagonal gallery within what was then Gallery 2. I was checking the progress when Martin walked in with the principle of one of Minneapolis’s top architectural firms. He looked at the “chapel” while Martin explained what was going on. “You’ve done it again, Martin,” he said, “this is a truly architectural space.” There was a perceptible pause as I said nothing and Martin hesitated. Then he said, “Well, thank you, but this is Graham’s design.” Another pause. “Maybe, Martin, but you’ll take all the credit.” Immediately, Martin: “Yes and that’s why he’s leaving!” The laughter was general but there it was again, the blending of fact and fable and Martin’s embrace of both.
So did Martin teach me how things are done in the US? He certainly demonstrated how things should be done in every aspect of a museum’s operation from the technical to the political, from exhibition planning to fund-raising but, by the very nature of Martin’s close rapport with board members, I learned very little about board management. On one occasion I looked up to see the board chair, Allie Wittenberg, tapping on my (open) door. “Martin,” she said, “Has given me permission to speak to you about an idea.” Board members, like the staff, had been trained to follow the rules. Accordingly, when I went to my next US museum as chief curator, I was completely unprepared for the anarchic and silo-ed situation that confronted me at staff level, and the state of near-civil war that prevailed at board level. Martin had urged me to take this position over another, brushing aside my very specific concerns by asserting that I was “too good” to be treated with any lack of respect. When, nearly prostrate with stress, I called Martin to discuss the situation he was appalled and formally apologized. “We’ve got to get you out of there,” he said. (The situation changed over the next six months and I was able to stay for over four years before going on to my first directorship - having learned a great deal about board management from the individual who took over as director)
The last board meeting I attended at Walker was a celebratory one. The Barnes-designed extension to the original Barnes building had just been completed and everyone was looking forward to a respite from fund-raising. Then, Martin raised an idea that he had harbored for a number of years but never actually pursued - a large sculpture garden in the land across the street. As he launched into a description of his vision and his seriousness of purpose became clear, board members - some of them very close friends - actually started heckling; politely but not at all in jest. “Stop, Martin,” “Enough,” “No, Martin.” Martin continued his narrative over the calls and, raising his voice just a little, triumphantly concluded, “I have an estimate for the cost; it’s seven million and I’ve already raised the first three.” It was, literally, all over - including the shouting. He was, as ever, ahead of the game. There have been - and will be - few art museum directors of his caliber.
*There may be other versions of some of the tales I tell but, as I have regularly related most of them over the years I am comfortable that they are not unduly distorted. I move in and out of direct speech but do not claim that the quotes - other than the opening one - are anything other than useful approximations.
Photo of Martin Friedman courtesy of the Walker Art Center