Frank-ly Speaking

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You don't have to be much of a cynic to at least raise an eyebrow at the Museum of Fine Arts' exhibit "More than a Constructive Hobby: The Paintings of Frank Freed." After all, as curator William Camfield admitted in a lecture given when the Freed display was unveiled, the works of the late Houston insurance salesman who didn't begin to paint until he was in his forties, saying he needed a hobby for old age, are "uneven in quality. That's a euphemistic way of saying that some of them are not very good." The exhibit's catalog talks of Freed's not-so-successful attempt to paint a likeness of his wife, and of what one critic referred to as his "severe limitations as a draftsman." Freed was basically a Sunday painter, of which there have been many in Houston's history. It's likely that more than a few of comparable talent have gone semi-professional, as Freed did before his death in 1975. So the question then is, why is the MFA paying homage to this particular one?

The cynical answer would be money. Frank was more than just a salesman. He was a salesman with money. He and his wife Eleanor built up a tidy fortune that they were more than willing to share with the city's museums. According to MFA officials, they first considered the possibility of exhibiting Freed's work in the early '80s, when Eleanor Freed, who died in 1992, was still alive. In her will, Eleanor left a bequest worth almost $300,000 to the MFA, which included $100,000 for a lecture series devoted to narrative art -- the first of which was Camfield's lecture on Freed himself. The exhibit, furthermore, is "made possible by the generous support of the Eleanor and Frank Freed Foundation." According to one of its trustees, that foundation has also pledged $500,000 for renovations to the museum's Glassell School of Art, which Frank Freed attended and which contains the Eleanor and Frank Freed Auditorium and Image Library.

If this seems to add up to a wealthy museum showcasing the hobby of its wealthy supporter ... well, it does. The museum's romantic ordinary-Joe-turned-artist stories notwithstanding, if Frank Freed hadn't occupied the social position he did, we almost certainly wouldn't be seeing this exhibit. However -- and it is a big however -- if the Freeds hadn't occupied the social position they did, Houston's cultural life would have lost far more than money. It would have lost two ardent and courageous supporters. Moreover, Freed's paintings -- more sharply observant than nostalgic -- record a dynamic period in the city's history. So, cynicism aside, this exhibit is in some ways an appropriate one for the MFA, even though Frank Freed was no Edward Hopper, or even a Norman Rockwell.

Though Freed drew cartoons and illustrations in college, it wasn't until he enrolled in a painting class at Glassell in 1948 that he began to make art in earnest. He was 42 years old. That same year, the Contemporary Arts Association (now the Contemporary Arts Museum) was founded, and Freed quickly joined.

At the time, New York was experiencing a vital quickening of the art world -- abstract expressionism, heralded as the first wholly American art movement, was in vogue. But Houston's MFA, which had only a part-time director, declined to focus on the art of the day. So a group of architects, artists and businessmen formed the CAA to supplement the programs of the city's existing institutions. Run by volunteers such as Freed, the CAA, one of the first organizations of its kind outside of New York, was an immediate success -- its membership numbered 200 before its first exhibit, a design show of everyday objects, opened. The CAA's programming blended didactic, ambitious exhibits with the conviction that art should be available to everyone. One of the projects the Freeds, who married in 1950, helped with was an annual art rental program that gave those who couldn't afford to purchase art an opportunity to have it in their home.

Frank's father was an insurance salesman and a committed Zionist; his mother gave much of her attention to the Houston Symphony. Eleanor was from a wealthy Memphis family. Preston Frazier, an early CAA supporter, remembers that "Frank spoke almost not at all, and when he did, he said hilariously funny things. Eleanor never stopped talking. It was a golden time ... incredibly, you could start a new museum. The war was over, and people's minds were open." Houston artist Earl Staley remembers meeting the Freeds when he came to Houston in the late '60s. "Being an artist," he says, "that's who you met, you met Eleanor." For eight years, from 1965 until 1973, Eleanor was the art critic for the Houston Post; she resigned to devote more time to promoting her husband's work. She was always concerned that local artists didn't get the attention they deserved. "She was like the Eveready woman," says DiverseWorks director Emily Todd, who curated a Frank Freed exhibit at the CAM in 1983.

Though the Freeds championed the art vanguard, Frank's own work -- recognizably figurative -- was nothing like what that vanguard was doing. "It didn't look like art at all," Staley says. "Nobody painted stories in those days .... You couldn't help but like the man, and you couldn't help but like the work. For all us young macho painters, it wasn't any threat." In fact, many who knew the Freeds had no idea of how much time Frank invested in his painting. He exhibited in group shows, the first being the Texas General Exhibition the MFA used to host, but didn't have a solo exhibit until 1964, at the Tall Timbers Club. In the mid-'70s, aware that Frank was nearing death from cancer, Eleanor began to buy back works of his that she felt should be in museums. She and the Freed Foundation contributed Freed paintings to the MFA, the Menil and other art museums, among them the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, Freed's alma mater. The remainder of his work -- Camfield estimates that Freed made roughly 400 paintings -- was auctioned off in 1994.

If it seems there's more to say about the Freeds themselves than Frank Freed's paintings, there is. (The exhibit catalog is a wonderful read, reproducing a Better Homes and Gardens feature on the Freeds' Memorial home alongside some of Freed's better paintings and drawings that were not included in the exhibit.) Freed's best known painting, and a centerpiece of the MFA exhibit, is famous mainly for its historical value. Opening Night at the Contemporary Arts Museum is a bird's-eye view of a wall-to-wall cocktail party at the CAA's first building, an asymmetrical A-frame that was first located downtown, then cut in half and moved to land owned by the Prudential Insurance Company. The painting shows many of the habitues of the Houston art world circa 1954, including the first full-time director of the MFA, Lee Malone, artist Frank Doleska, architect Preston Frazier and the Freeds themselves, conversing with Salvador Dali, who visited the CAA in 1952. In the background, talking to no one, is Alvin Romansky, who allegedly wrote an anonymous, never-published letter to the Houston Chronicle accusing the Freeds of being Communist sympathizers; when the Red Scare was at a fever pitch, the Freeds organized an exhibit of contemporary Mexican painters that included the Communist muralist Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo.

Opening Night is not only a slice of Houston's nightlife, but a comment on one of Freed's favorite subjects: art. The crowd, in a social frenzy, ignores the art on display behind them, which includes an Arshile Gorky painting and a Henry Calder mobile. In other works on display at the MFA or in the exhibit's catalog, Freed shows a bust surrounded by empty cocktail glasses, tourists crowding around for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa and characters from historical paintings waiting in line at the cafeteria in the Louvre. One painting in the exhibit shows James Johnson Sweeney, MFA director in the 1960s and a stern advocate of abstract art, expelling from his museum a hopeful artist clutching a landscape painting. Though Freed was a devotee of the art world, he never lost his sense of humor about it. When people compared Freed's work to that of naive or folk painters, he replied, "My idea of a naive painter is one who thinks he can make a living at it."

Freed further documented a changing city in works such as the charming watercolor depiction of the Jones News Stand, which was located across from the Rice Hotel downtown. Interchange is a loopy, exaggerated painting of Houston's infamous freeway system, and View from White Oak is a somber look at downtown from the vantage point of Freed's parents' once nearly rural property in the Heights. But Freed also traveled a good deal, and painted cityscapes, landscapes, street scenes such as Garment District at Noon Time, generic '60s student protests such as Confrontation and war images such as Cease Fire, a landscape littered with empty helmets. Some of his paintings, such as his popular favorite Maze, which shows a salesman choosing between two openings into a maze that extends into the horizon, look rather like Far Side cartoons or MAD magazine's "Spy vs. Spy." To his credit, Freed never limited his subject matter to typical Sunday painter fodder.

As Camfield notes, Freed's paintings are not all wonderful. Many -- such as & Co., which shows a strait-laced businessman standing at a window that faces a brick wall -- are downright hokey. In the brick pattern, Freed has shadowed in the silhouette of a naked woman, arms and legs open, the unsubtle foil to the buttoned-down life of the office. But even the bad paintings have the appeal of a pop song or an after-dinner joke -- familiar and obvious, maybe, yet everyone will be able to find a favorite. My own is the rhythmic Lido, which shows an Italian beach at rush hour. Scantily dressed passersby rendered in Freed's characteristically awkward style strut purposefully down the boardwalk, while below them, their counterparts stride in the other direction on the sand.

Freed made some good satirical paintings, such as Las Vegas I, which shows two snooty women seated on a sofa, and Guided Tour, which captures retirees on a tourist jaunt, but his most interesting works are the completely bizarre ones, the ones that are products of a singular mind. High Level Conference is an unusual subject for a painting: it shows Dan Rather and other VIPs at a U.S.-Soviet summit. Though the actual meeting, between LBJ and Aleksei Kosygin, took place in midsummer, Freed has placed these somber men in autumn, with streams of leaves falling about them, which lends the ritual of shaking hands a distinctly unreal quality. Auschwitz is a theatrical scene that shows a stream of people walking down a white road at night. A soldier, silhouetted in the foreground, trains a bright light on the prisoners. Family Tree is an actual tree, with inset squares showing an imaginary family, including a black sheep and a last generation in which, as Freed said, everyone is a hippie. And Study of History is perhaps the strangest in its disingenuousness. Freed filled his canvas with a receding stack of blocks, some of which have chunks of "history" painted on them. There are religious icons, Shakespeare, tribal art, an automobile, Napoleon, Einstein's equation, an atom bomb and an astronaut.

Though Freed wasn't particularly nostalgic, to look at these paintings is an exercise in nostalgia. You don't have to remember the Jones News Stand to know that many of these paintings recorded a disappearing time through eyes that belonged to a disappearing sort of man -- an old school liberal who didn't particularly like being a businessman, but was not about to be a hippie. Frank Freed had a gentle, civil sense of humor that also seems rare today. I don't agree with CAM director Marti Mayo's conjecture that the Freed exhibit shows us where we all came from artistically -- I think his work was simply "a constructive hobby," and that's how he himself treated it -- but I do agree that the exhibit reminds us why, as Mayo says, "we have a more exciting scene than Omaha. Art communities don't rise out of the sand because evolution dictated it."

No, they rise out of the sand because of people like Frank Freed. And maybe that's enough to justify some time and attention, despite the fact that the MFA exhibit comes uncomfortably close to being a vanity arrangement. A great artist he wasn't. But a great art enabler he was. Not many communities could boast someone like Freed, a painter who quietly did his own thing at the same time that he supported art in an extraordinarily catholic way.

"More than a Constructive Hobby: The Paintings of Frank Freed" is on view through September 8 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 639-7300.

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