Joseph Friebert was born in Buffalo, New York. He was three years old when his family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he spent the rest of his life. In his nearly 70-year career, he became one of Wisconsin’s leading artists, as well as a beloved and influential teacher, serving on the art faculty of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee from 1946 to his retirement in 1976. Working in his studio nearly every day well into his nineties, he created paintings and watercolors, drawings, and prints in a variety of media.
Born to a Socialist union-organizer father, Friebert produced art from the beginning of his career that reflects a concern for the modern human condition. The figures in his often dark-hued Social Realist compositions of the late 1930s and 1940s—whether they are behind bars, in line-ups, on forced marches, picking coal, or walking city streets—seem stoic and melancholy. To enhance the pensive mood expressed in his work, Friebert developed a form of “indirect painting,” in which images are built up in successive layers of opaque underpaint in combination with layers of oil glazes that owe much to his study of Old Master techniques. That brooding quality extends as well to the many views of Wisconsin’s landscape and the cityscapes dating to this deeply troubled period in world history.
Late 1940s–early 1960s
In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Friebert developed a semiabstract style, breaking urban forms—buildings, skyscrapers, churches and synagogues, walls—into blocks of glowing colors. One of these compositions was selected for the exhibition in the American pavilion of the Venice Biennale of 1956, “American Artists Paint the City.” The exhibition’s curator, Katharine Kuh, wrote, “Joseph Friebert paints dark, glowing canvases where dusk seems always impending. Friebert projects both melancholy and mystery. . . , allowing sharp points of colored lights to shine through heavy pigment.” Friebert also modified this style—in symbolic figural compositions, including crucifixions—to express his dismay at the political inequities and social ills of the McCarthy period.
By the mid-1960s, Friebert was working in a less abstract manner, employing masterful, loose brushwork and a brighter palette: an almost symphonic, romantically lush style that he would favor throughout the rest of his life. He continued to engage with his preferred subjects: refugees and the persecuted, city- and landscapes, families and groups in interiors and outside. His many years teaching life drawing (his favorite course) resulted in a concentration on the nude—mainly female—in many media. In the later decades of his career, he also produced monotypes and lithographs—both monochrome and layered with pastels—that treat all these subjects.
During his lifetime, Friebert showed extensively in the Midwest, including numerous solo museum exhibitions. His work was represented as well as in national juried exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and National Academy of Design; Worcester Art Museum; Walker Art Museum; and the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C. Internationally, his work was seen in the American pavilion at the 1956 Venice Biennale.
In addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Chazen Museum of Art, the Museum of Wisconsin Art, and numerous municipal and university galleries of Wisconsin, Friebert’s art is represented in many important American museums. In 2015–16 the Kohler Foundation, Inc., distributed nearly 280 works by him nationwide as part of its commitment to serve the careers of deserving artists whose oeuvre is underrepresented in public collections. They include the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbus Art Museum, Detroit Institute of Arts, Flint Institute of Arts, Joslyn Art Museum, Nelson-Atkins Museum, Mint Museum, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Philadelphia Museum of Art. University and college collections include DePaul, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kansas State, Loyola, Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern, Princeton, Rhode Island School of Design, Smith, Wellesley, and Wesleyan (Connecticut). Friebert is also represented in private collections in the United States and abroad.
Friebert won exhibition-related awards too numerous to itemize here. He received a Ford Foundation grant in 1952 that allowed him to study for an academic year at the Arts Students League in New York and an award from the Richard Florsheim Foundation in 1990. Posthumously, he was given a Wisconsin Visual Artists Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. In 2019 Friebert’s sketchbooks and papers will be transferred to the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.