Tibor Freund: Motion in Paintings
HUNGARIAN CULTURAL CENTER | OCTOBER 2 – NOVEMBER 21, 2008
When Tibor Freund (1910-2007) died last year in Queens, it went largely unnoticed. In his 97 years, the Hungarian modernist experienced much change in the world, to say the least. He left us a compelling body of work spanning architecture, industrial design, public murals, and a truly strange corpus of visionary paintings that have remained surprisingly relevant given the artist’s nearly forgotten status.
Beginning in 1957, Freund embarked on a series of works that would occupy him for the remainder of his life, what he called “motion pictures.” Influenced by fellow Hungarian, the painter, photographer, and Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy, whose pioneering book Vision in Motion brought to the fore the issue of visual change borne of movement. His teachings were central to Freund’s interest in the possibilities of the kinetic, that unseen fourth dimension that the artist believed would liberate earthbound man. He must have sounded like a crank in the early ’60s New York painting scene when he proclaimed that he would show the way for future painters to “set canvas-bound painting free.” As the artist would state in his poetic theory Painting in Space (1962-3):
Painters create the illusion of 3 dimensional SPACE
by putting paint onto 2 dimensional PLANES.
In order to create the illusion of 4 dimensional MOTION
I am putting paint into 3 dimensional SPACE.
Freund’s technique was to paint a design on metal or wood scored vertically every few fractions-of-an-inch, a technique based on an elementary 19th-century invention called the “three sided-picture.” Employing this form enabled the artist to reveal as many as six different images within the borders of a single painting, which reveal themselves as the viewer physically moves through space. This form of interaction is not unlike that of a body caught in orbit around a fluctuating surface that presents its information in intermittent flashes. There is no decisive position for viewing, no single moment of fixed perspective. This mixing of technology and industry into the numinous notions of kinetic change, a notion formulated by Bauhaus thinkers as early as 1919, resonates clearly through these pictures and, to this witness, seems eccentrically timely and relevant.
Returning to this form for over forty years, Freund makes a convincing and refined argument. In The Seasons (1958) we are presented with the image of a brown line entering the picture plane from the left. It makes a few right angles, branches off of itself, and terminates near the center of the painting. This line is surrounded by a series of solidly colored squares, like the background graphics of early Atari and Nintendo video games. In this case, it is the overtly simplified image of a tree branch with leaves. As we move around the painting, the colors of the image shift from greens and yellows to browns and grays. It’s a simple metaphor for change and an early example of Freund’s interest in the natural and organic.
In Assimilation (1963-64), completed only five years after The Seasons, Freund has dramatically cultivated his technique into startlingly bizarre images of shifting organic abstractions that anchor the eyeball and, by extension, our brain into their magnetic pull. A vibrating culture of lavender splotches and dots, surrounded by a light orange sack-like form, cascades down the surface, ending with a flowering burst of smaller, deep orange dots. The entire encounter sits within a field of mossy green with faint orange interruptions. Just as memory is mutable, a shift of the body’s position can alter its mental state: lavender is devoured by orange and red, and opacity gives way to translucence. Interruption and continuity slide back and forth like the dial on a stereo receiver, tuning in and out of the mental static around our perceptions. The painting draws us into itself and out of our defenses like a game in which memories are recalled by moving our physical being and lost by doing the same.
The bits of biographical information we have surrounding the artist show him to be a nomad as well as a proselytizer and practitioner of the modern age. He earned an architecture degree in Zurich in 1932. Nearly a decade later he went to Tehran, where, among other things, he was a maintenance artist for the Golden Mosque, and where he eventually supervised the architecture of the Palace of Justice. In 1947, he returned to Budapest to continue his work in architecture and industrial design. Displaced by the expansion of the Soviet Empire, he moved to Israel where he spent the next four years. He finally settled in New York in 1953, obtained citizenship and continued to practice his art. He became a member of the National Society of Mural painters (he remained a member of this organization until 1998) and his mural Vehicle of Progress of Education (1971) remains in the lobby of Public School #162 in the Bronx to this day. He showed his work regularly in the ’60s and ’70s, most notably at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery.
Collector Michael Chutko, together with artist Raffaele D’Onofrio, “rediscovered” Freund and visited him in his Jackson Heights apartment before his death. It was their efforts that led to the exhibition Light, Time, and Motion: The Paintings of Tibor Freund, held in early January of this year at the Painting Center. It was at this venue that I first encountered Freund’s paintings through a public talk given by the editor of these pages, John Yau, and haven’t stopped thinking of them since. (Yau also wrote a short essay accompanying this exhibition.)
In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James stated, “Our normal waking consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” To my mind, Freund’s pictures seem most relevant when they articulate and cultivate this kind of expression. It’s one where multiple temporal and visual states can exist simultaneously, where the beliefs of transmutability and change are harnessed. Freund was an artist of his time, no doubt, but it’s the filmiest of screens that separates him from ours. Perhaps it’s time we gazed into that membrane to see what we can find.