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    On Sunday, well-known Louisville artist Julius Friedman died. He had leukemia. Last year, Friedman showed us his 50-year retrospective at the Frazier History Museum. His youthful air inspired us to call him forever young.

     

    Just before 9 a.m. on an early-July morning, Julius Friedman sits back on an upholstered leather couch in the great hall of the Frazier History Museum downtown. The huge space soars, a flight of brick, wood, glass, an echo chamber for the group of elementary school kids climbing the stairs. In the center of the room sits an old green car that looks like a Model T, and hanging on the walls all around: about 220 posters that have made Friedman perhaps the most famous artist Louisville has ever produced.

    Jodi Lewis, the director of programs at the museum, asks Friedman if he’s here to show off his work to Louisville Magazine. “No,” he says. “I’m here waiting for papaya juice and scones. What are you here for?”

    Laughter carries through the room like sonar, cutting through the recording of a string quartet playing Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.” The Frazier is two weeks into Freidman’s 50-year retrospective, on display until Oct. 9. For the opening, the museum invited a bunch of kids to re-create his famous Louisville Orchestra poster of a French horn filled with ice cream. He wore a paper server’s hat and directed the kids as they dropped gelato into the instrument, raising his arms in triumph at the cherry on top. The 73-year-old tells me: “If you saw me with those kids, I was no older than they were. It’s a mindset. Most of my friends act old, therefore they are old. All they talk about is health. It’s like, You’re gonna die. What’s the issue?”

    A well-worn smile warms Friedman’s face, his gray hair done with the top of his head, holding on around the sides. He wears a simple black T-shirt, slimish jeans. The bright red accents on his socks flash above his black leather loafers. He asks me how I got my job. “You didn’t go all House of Cards and kill anyone, did ya?”

    Friedman was excited when the museum gave him the go-ahead for a retrospective of his posters. “For about five minutes,” he says. “As an artist, I’ve always admired artists that loved what they do, no matter how bad the art is.” When he creates something, he likes it for the first second, dislikes it by the second. “After three seconds, it sucks the big one. Psychologically, health-wise, who is better — the lousy artist who loves his work, or the guy who wants to kill himself because his work sucks the big one?”

    About a month after agreeing to do the show, Friedman decided he wanted to include personal artwork to go along with his decades’ worth of commercial design. Banners with eroding cherubic faces and big cubes with “love” and “hate” printed on them form an installation on war, death. Friedman’s first poster was about peace, “a dove, or something,” he says. All these years later, black men dying in the streets, Friedman doubts we’ve made any progress at all.

    But he’s made more progress than he ever anticipated. He’s shown work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, several places in Europe, even in Tokyo. Hell, he never expected to live past 40, the age his father died when Friedman was 17. “I wish I had a better story going. Like, I saw a Georgia O’Keeffe painting and it changed my life. Someone peed on my shoe and ... I’m going to do a series on water when I get old,” he says, poking fun at a recent project of his involving water. He dropped out of UK’s architecture program when he caught mono his freshman year, then studied graphic design at U of L, which didn’t offer architecture. But he got fed up and dropped out with about three credit hours between him and a degree. (A teacher would later persuade him to come back. The university eventually dubbed him one of its distinguished alumni. “Really?” he thought. “This is a school I dropped out of.”)

    Each frame on the walls at the Frazier is a memory. The flaming piano for the orchestra: He chose lantern fuel — kerosene too black, gasoline too explosive. An old classmate who worked at Gist piano advised him to loosen the piano strings, which could have snapped and “made a live grenade.”

    The worms in a beautiful porcelain dish: The old guys in the bait shop thought he was crazy. At the shoot, one of the photographers said he loved worms, and dropped one into his mouth. “He’s a sick puppy,” Friedman says.

    The forever-popular Louisville Ballet poster of a pink-flat-clad toe balanced atop an egg: A free job he offered the ballet. When they asked what the image was, he said they were missing the point. “It would be better for my career if I were having this conversation with the New York Ballet, or the Russian Ballet,” he said. They accepted the poster without ever seeing it.

    Two back rooms brimming with darkness hold Friedman’s personal work. I try to add up the time he must have spent on all these cumulative projects, but the number gets too big. At least 50 years. He's creating at his Westport farm by 8 a.m. every morning, whether he has a project to do or not. If he’s not taking photographs, he’s making collages out of books, or stacking stones. In all of Friedman’s noncommercial work, the real becomes unreal, the Japanese maple in his yard a gradation of blurs, the surface of his pond a weave of light. What the thing is doesn’t matter so much as what you see. Earlier, when a woman looked at Friedman's bright shots of a nude model slathered with mud and paint, he asked her what she saw.

    “Marble?” she guessed.

    “That’s a butt,” he said.

    In the center of the room, translucent banners of gauze printed with abstract shots of trees, water and landscapes drape from bamboo Friedman dragged up from his farm, the wood suspended in the air like a divine game of pick-up sticks. Friedman disappears behind the banners. They caress his face, his arms. The rest of the room, the museum, the city, the world falls away. I lose him to forest, sea, forest again. Through the fabric, his skin is as smooth as the silk he originally planned for this project — which turned out too opaque. Through the veils, he is a kid again. He is what he seems to be.

     

    Cover Image: Self-portrait by Julius Friedman

     

    This originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Staff writer Dylon Jones first contributed to the magazine in 2014 and joined the staff in 2015. He's written profiles, features, essays, criticism and reportage about a wide variety of topics and won awards for feature writing and profile writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is particularly interested in narrative journalism, the arts and LGBTQ experience. Jones is an award-winning poet with work published in Tinderbox Poetry Journal and The Collagist.

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