B(ernard) H(arper) Friedman Essay - Critical Essays

Friedman, B(ernard) H(arper)

Friedman, B(ernard) H(arper) 1926–

Friedman is an American novelist and a biographer of Jackson Pollock. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Since] Pollock the star and Pollock the artist only relate to one another in a dialectical and often contradictory fashion, it is … unfortunate for B. H. Friedman [that, in] his attempt to write the biography of both Pollocks, victor and victim, he has really written about neither.

He has, however, given us a good workmanlike book [Jackson Pollock] that includes 1) a factual sketch of the shape of Pollock's life, with an emphasis on psychology that at times threatens to treat the paintings as therapeutic tools, 2) a sturdy, middlebrow discussion of the paintings of the sort one might expect from a "general intellectual," and, finally, 3) an altogether interesting account of the world he and Pollock shared—the art world of the Fifties as it existed in New York and East Hampton. It was a genuine Vanity Fair, and Friedman communicates some of the clutter, excitement, and bitchery of that world. But, truly, Friedman is no Thackeray, and even this part of his narrative is marred by his tact. People unfamiliar with that world will probably still find it a little shocking, but those who are familiar with it will find it overly polite.

Reading [Jackson Pollock], I found myself again and again involved in this kind of audience parsing, and it is indicative of a problem that Friedman, as a first biographer, probably couldn't avoid. (p. 80)

Dave Hickey, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 9, 1972.

B. H. Friedman's "Museum"… is more an essay than a novel, more a discussion of the difficulties of committees and institutions than an exploration of plot, character, theme or technique.

The institution immediately in question, the Museum of Living Art, is owned by the Skane family. Since "the name was a household word" and its great weight always fell "like a ton of bricks—or gold bars," Emerson Skane III worries that his father's desire to help young artists will be forgotten, and so he joins the board of trustees.

But as the museum adjusts to current trends and social and economic changes, Em discovers that constant compromises are required. Although art remains a unique expression of individuals, its dissemination and preservation demand democratic give-and-take….

This might have made effective fiction had Friedman rendered it dramatically, but he has a weakness for indirect discourse, for dialogue that reads like a lecture, for exposition that incessantly repeats the same ideas, and for characters who discuss little except Significant Issues. Must marriage, families, religions, countries and civilizations, Friedman asks ad nauseum, always turn into institutions that betray their ideals?

An important question, of course, but a reader can entertain it only so often, especially given the author's inability to vary it or express it with vitality. [The] book becomes a compendium of clichés…. (p. 26)

Michael Mewshaw, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 13, 1974.

Museum … seems at first to be largely conventional. It traces the adventures of rich, middle-aged Emerson Skane III as he confronts the meaning of his father's legacy. But the hero is less conventional than he appears…. His wealth and his anti-conventionality make his character especially interesting.

B. H. Friedman's knowledge of art (and the art world) is apparent on every page. He is so comfortable with this environment—he is convincing on board meetings, construction plans for museums, art historians—and with his hero that he gives us an insider's novel.

However Friedman moves beyond mere reportage. He constructs his fiction artfully, demonstrating … that life is full of contradictions and duplicities. His style perfectly captures these concerns….

Em (Emerson) is comfortable in the museum because he is able to accept the ties to his father (and to the past) as well as to his present attachments. He understands the knots of life, those knots that resemble the institutions he has disliked, and he recognizes that maturity involves compromise. But Em is not restrictive. He fights rigidity of belief by keeping alive his dreams, his flights of imagination that are suggested by the surrealistic "swarm of black nocturnal butterflies." Like his hero Friedman moves from realistic gesture and object—the museum, the black bow tie—to dream-states. His style vibrantly reconciles opposites, implying freedom of movement and response. (p. 25)

Irving Malin, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 19, 1974.

Museum … is, formally at least, a mundane, even formulaic work, somewhat in the mode of Arthur Hailey's best-sellers which spin their web of human dramas around the inner workings of some institution. A museum is of course more exalted than a hotel or airport and the issues of Friedman's novel are accordingly more philosophic—unabashedly ethical, existential and aesthetic.

Emerson Skane III, a very rich scion of an American robber-baron fortune, ultra-civilized, self-contained, detached, unintentionally gets deeply involved in the running of the Museum of Living Art…. A rather old-fashioned novel, Museum has a story line and is guided by some clear-cut moral issues. Perhaps too clear-cut: there is something remorselessly reductive in the setting forth of its scheme of oppositions: tradition versus contemporaneity, dilettantism versus professionalism, detachment versus commitment. Emerson Skane III exists primarily as the vehicle for contending with these dichotomies. He is a bloodless character, not because he is so aloof and self-sufficient but because the author has conceived and conveyed him so thinly….

It is a reasonable guess that the manuscript has been around for a few years (the novel takes place in the late 1960s and shows every sign of having been written during and for those years; it is dated by its topicality)…. There is nothing particularly venturesome about this novel (except possibly for an alarming episode, worthy of André Gide, in which Buckminster Fuller makes a guest appearance). The book is moderately idea-ridden…. It is pulp fiction for highbrows. (p. 602)

Beverly Gross, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), December 7, 1974.

A hint is dropped on the last page of ["Almost a Life," a] laboriously tricked-up novel that what the author has been about (in case the reader has been too obtuse to notice) is "non-novelistic fiction; something invented and complete in itself … using so-called journalistic techniques, cumulative, linear, referential, plotless." And so this book is: plotless, boneless, and humorless. A seasoned journalist, in doing a long article about a famous photographer for a chic New York magazine, discovers that he learns as much about his own life from his research as he does about the photographer's. The photographer is larger than life and bold. The journalist is neither. They spend a lot of time together. They talk about art and life. The photographer drinks too much. They talk about children, wives, politics, nature. The journalist visits the man's friends and enemies. A picture emerges. The reader has seen it develop. Fragment by fragment. Drink by drink by drink. (p. 125)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), September 8, 1975.

Almost a Life suffers because what Friedman is trying to do is either very easy or else beyond his powers. During the Fitzgerald revival a great many novels were written on the Gatsby model of "great man" hero and admiring but limited narrator, books like Wright Morris's The Huge Season and Frederic Buechner's Return of Ansel Gibbs: cool, literary, not very satisfactory. Since Morris and Buechner are writers of stature they went on, long after the fifties were over, to adopt different tones and stances to see what could be done with the Hero and the Witness. Almost a Life seems almost a reversion, cool as a cucumber, alert and knowing, about a famous photographer, a giant of a man who drinks and talks extravagantly, as seen by a button-down-collar-type from a magazine that might as well be The New Yorker. Friedman knows full well what is wrong with his narrator, but can do nothing to make him interesting; Jeff McMaster, the photographer, says interesting things about taking pictures, and some minor characters are well done, but all this is to be expected in this kind of book written by this good an author. Almost a Life is only almost a book because it contents itself with being like lots of others. (p. 618)

Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76.