James Freedman: A striking portrait of a distant past

Written by Kate Choi, CNN Los Angeles Contributors, Contributors Barbara Denham, Md, Senior Reporter

Each week, @adjustedfete, @karuchinder-kl. Director Stacie Chang , @livinphotography

What’s the most intimate art object you’ve ever owned?

In June 2015, I presented James Freedman with the painting that documented the story of his art school, Sarah Lawrence College, from its founding in 1971 to its closing in 2013. The painting, created by Freedman in 1981 for a student who hadn’t survived the effects of war, is titled “Tetris” and is based on a puzzle game.

“Tetris” shows the emblems of the school: a painting of the circular smudge from the ceiling of room 119 when it was painted, a drawing of one of the famous grass trees, one of the dormitories (Wardrobe 1) and a bike hanging from the ceiling of Wardrobe 102 (Baldwin Hall). Freedman also created a toilet-seat take-off on the game as a teen on his 1965 Honda Dory (their “Tetris” logo), with one urinal flying in the air, another urinal descending and the rest falling to the ground (Uniform 9).

But the copy of the square I hung for Freedman’s viewing in that room also holds a little more significance: it’s the original sheet music for the act “Untitled” performed by Freedman’s former orchestra coach, Jean Folk (nee Johnson, the first American black woman to play the violin and lead a symphony) with Freedman as the soloist.

The piece “Untitled” was originally written in French (Folk at Sarah Lawrence was one of two French-born students) but Freedman knew Folk well enough to translate it for her.

But “Untitled” is just one of the artful ordeals people have gone through at Sarah Lawrence. Until Freedman had to leave after art school in 1980, he conducted many of the workshops, taught classes and filled in as a substitute instructor when needed.

In the gallery space near the bathroom, you’ll see how Freedman created many of his abstract, sun-colored acrylics, based on his interpretation of the sun when he was bitten by a raccoon while taking out the trash. It almost would have been a piece of art itself, but the job fell to his younger brother, Steven, who got bitten and then died in a freak accident at the library.

An oak is the main feature of the exhibition, a product of the company owned by Freedman’s father, an avid carpenter, and of the focus of one section of the exhibition, illustrated with how he applied the method.

Freedman’s new look

Nearly 30 years after his art school experience, Freedman now lives in New York and is widely recognized as a prominent muralist who works both alone and with other artists. His work is part of the permanent collections of several institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Francis Bacon Foundation.

Despite his prominence, this is Freedman’s first solo show in Los Angeles, so the gift shown here is a strange one. Aside from the records of Sarah Lawrence College, what else does he have that other people have not?

We were struck by the purity of the painting’s composition and the eloquence of Freedman’s words, but ultimately, the painting is exquisite, so when we saw it, what came to our mind was not the thought that it was a gift but its appearance in person.

We wanted to get the almost airbrushed quality of the painting out of our minds and treat it as one of the ephemeral objects in the middle of a cluttered studio. To be able to see the painting as the gift first of Freedman and then as his masterpiece was emotional for us.

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