Called one of Wisconsin’s greatest “living treasures” by the late James Auer, Milwaukee Journal art critic, Joseph Friebert (1908–2002) enjoyed a long and distinguished career, becoming one of the state’s leading artists and a beloved and influential teacher.
Friebert’s art reflects an overriding concern for the human condition. The figures in his often dimly lit Social Realist compositions of the late 1930s and 1940s—whether behind bars, in line-ups, picking coal, or walking city streets—seem stoic and melancholy. To enhance the pensive mood of his work, Friebert developed a form of “indirect painting,” adopting Old Master techniques involving the layering of pigments and glazes. This brooding quality is also found in his land- and cityscapes of the period.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Friebert switched to a semi-abstract style, breaking urban forms—buildings, skyscrapers, churches and synagogues, walls—into blocks of glowing, dusky colors. Concurrently, he produced symbolic figural compositions to express his dismay at the political and social ills of the Cold War period.
From the mid-1960s until the end of his life, Friebert worked exclusively in a lush figurative manner, employing masterful, loose brushwork and a brighter palette. He continued to engage with his preferred themes: refugees and the persecuted, city scenes and landscapes, families and groups in interiors and exteriors. He never stopped drawing, a subject he taught throughout his years at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
During his lifetime, Friebert showed extensively throughout the Midwest, including in numerous juried group exhibitions at which he frequently won prizes, and in one-person displays at museums and galleries. His art hung in shows at major museums across the United States and in 1956 was featured in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale
In 2015–16, the Kohler Foundation and Friebert’s family presented the Museum of Wisconsin Art with sixty-seven works—paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints—from all periods of his life. Joining numerous works already in the collection, the donation establishes MOWA as the largest repository of Friebert’s oeuvre. Celebrating the artist and the gift, Joseph Friebert: A Life in Art
will include almost fifty examples from our collection, as well as important loans.
Talk with Bob Cozzolino
Saturday, September 15 | 2:00–3:00
Join Robert Cozzolino—Patrick and Aimee
Butler Curator of Paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art—
as he explores Joseph Friebert’s work, how it connects to American modernism, and its deviation from the Wisconsin art of his time.
Free with Membership | Walk-ins Welcome
Enjoy the Book
Available August 18 | MOWA Shop
The Joseph Friebert: A Life in Art
exhibition will be accompanied by a 100-page, full-color