Reexamining the Legacy of a Navy Vet-Turned-Abstract Expressionist

When you hear of an artist engaged with social unrest in Mexico and the brutal military dictatorships of South America, you’re probably picturing a youthful Latino painter—not an older Michigan-born artist and Navy veteran who broke into the art world back in 1954 with a solo show at Rockefeller Center.

But such was the case with Robert Freimark, whose large-scale works take center stage this month at Palm Desert’s HOHMANN, in “Restoring Memory Back to Life.” An artist ahead of his time, Freimark transcended expectations for the All-American demographic he was born into: white, male, middle-class, and coming of age during World War II. After serving in the Navy from 1939 to 1946, the young Freimark returned to school, studying painting and creative writing in Toledo, Ohio, before receiving his MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1951. 

He went on to stage solo shows in Detroit, and then New York, marking the start of a career that lasted more than half a century—and establishing himself as an artist that looks outward instead of inward. While many veterans of war may retreat within, absorbed in their own painful memories, Freimark aligned himself with others, using art to express social injustices in the U.S. and abroad. 

As an artist, he refused to be limited. He employed a variety of mediums to convey his ideas—acrylic and watercolor painting, printmaking, tapestry, poetry, music, writing, even filmmaking—in pieces that are potently expressionistic. “I try to avoid painting objects or things,” Freimark wrote. “It is necessary to understand the landscape and human figure to develop a sense of reality, but now in my own serious work, I intend to symbolize ideas, values, and states of mind in pure abstract terms.”

While the artist’s oeuvre includes dreamy California landscapes in watercolor, the titles of some of his most prominent exhibitions and series reveal his overarching objectives: “The Art of Dissent,” “The American Crusade,” and “Body Bag Series,” among them. His large-scale acrylic Los Desaparecidos (The Disappeared Ones) (2000) was inspired by the heartbreaking human stories behind the military dictatorship that devastated Argentina from 1976 to 1982. Freimark also made a documentary on the subject, which premiered in 2003. 

Five years after his death, HOHMANN has worked with Freimark’s estate to present some of the most impactful works by the artist, perhaps one of the most unlikely abstract expressionists.

Bridget Gleeson

Restoring Memory Back to Life” is on view at HOHMANN, Palm Desert, California, April 3–23, 2015.

Follow HOHMANN on Artsy.