Elias Friedensohn, a native New Yorker, was a long-time resident of Leonia, New Jersey. For almost twenty years he worked in a studio attached to his house in Leonia.
Friedensohn graduated from New York's High School of Music and Art in 1942 and attended Tyler School of the Arts at Temple University, Philadelphia, from 1942 to 1943. After serving with the army in Europe during World War II, he received his bachelor of arts degree from Queens College in 1948. Friedensohn did graduate work at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York and began exhibiting his work in 1951.
The artist joined the Queens College Art Department in 1959, where he taught with Robert Birmelin and Lois Dodd; both of those artists are also connected with the Garden State. Friedensohn became Professor Emeritus at his retirement in 1987.
Friedensohn received numerous awards over the course of his long career. These included a Fulbright Grant to Italy (1957-58), a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1960), a Queens College Distinguished Alumnus Award (1969), MacDowell Fellowships (1969, 1970), an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1973), and New Jersey Council for the Arts Awards (1981, 1985).
Friedensohn's paintings were inspired by a wide variety of experiences. The Witness series evolved from news of the trial of the former Nazi Adolf Eichman in 1961. Another series was inspired by artifacts the artist discovered in 1963 that related to the 1905 assassination of President William McKinley by anarchist Czolgosz. Much of that work was later destroyed by Friedensohn as it seemed heartless in the light of other events occurring in the United States at the time.
According to the artist, "1963 was a year of deaths and births. Abstract Expressionism died. Humanism died. Pop Art thrived. The Theater of the Absurd was in full bloom. The crisis of alienation and identity was upon us. The Civil Rights Movement, in the face of violence and multiple deaths, won important victories of conscience. In November of that year John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The harsh reality of Kennedy's death made my studio inventions seem heartless - as though I had been practicing a kind of voodoo, making dolls. For a year I was utterly unnerved and unable to continue the work on Czolgosz and McKinley."(1)
The Apocalypse series of the late 1960s was inspired by the violence of the era. About this series the artist wrote, "When I began this series, the sixties were coming to an end. The crisis of the Vietnam War loomed darkly over the struggle against racism. The extremism of right and left took on apocalyptic dimensions. Violence. Terrorism. Race riots. Assassinations. Several sexual revolutions. Distrust all authority. Along with so many others, I was tormented by a sense of impending anarchy and revolted by the celebration of decadence."(2) Other paintings were inspired by the artist's second marriage, by airports, by travel to destinations such as Crete, Tunisia, and Jerusalem, and by the human figure.
Over the course of four decades, Friedensohn exhibited his work in more than forty one-person exhibitions of paintings and sculpture. He was represented by the Terry Dintenfass Gallery in Manhattan during the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to one-man shows in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Berkeley, his work has appeared in major national shows at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, The Whitney Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian Institution, and many others. Articles on the work have appeared in Art News, Art Forum, Art in America, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other publications.
Friedensohn's work has been collected by museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Museum of Art, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum, and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
Right before his death the artist completed the manuscript for a book entitled "The Secrets of Elias Friedensohn," from which portions of this text have been excerpted.
(KNO, Spring 2010)
Additional information on the artist courtesy Doris Friedensohn, Professor Emerita of Women's Studies, New Jersey City University.