Freed, Frank (1906–1975)

By: Kendall Curlee

Type: Biography

Published: January 1, 1995

Updated: January 5, 2017

Frank Freed, painter, was born in San Antonio, Texas, on February 6, 1906, to Louis and Fannie (Goodman) Freed. In 1913 his family moved to Houston, where Freed drew cartoons for his high school yearbook and the Rice Owl, the campus humor magazine, during a year of study at Rice University. From 1924 to 1927 he attended Harvard University, where he received a B.S. in English literature. After graduation he published several articles and began a forty-two-year career as a life-insurance salesman. He enlisted in the United States Army in 1943 and from 1944 to 1946 served in Normandy with the United States Corps of Engineers. He visited museums and exhibitions in Brussels and Paris. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York City he was impressed by a retrospective of the social realist painter Ben Shahn. In 1948 Freed began to paint; his earliest paintings, such as the jubilant Liberation of Paris (1948), were based on the war.

Although he studied briefly with Robert Preusser, he quickly developed an idiosyncratic style that changed little over the years. Certain qualities in his art, such as his reliance on outlining, attention to detail, flat compositions, anatomical irregularities, and use of bright colors, have led critics to categorize him as a "naive" painter. He used cartoon-like, simplified forms and a dry humor to satirize the modern world in works such as Urban Landscape (1973), a canvas filled with labyrinthine highways choked with cars, and Climate of Opinion (1970), in which people peering around and above a maze of walls and partially opened doors depict paranoia. Cocktail Party (1970) is filled with gesturing, exclaiming people, none of whom seems to hear anyone else. In other works he focused on a single person, generally expressing a contemplative or melancholy mood; in the ink drawing Bar Fly, for example, the dejection of a woman seated at a bar is captured by the single line that traces the shape of her back. Freed also focused on some historic events. Between 1965 and 1969 he represented student protests against the Vietnam War in Confrontation, and in Auschwitz, a group of inmates walking towards a distant funnel of smoke is dwarfed by the ominous silhouettes of a helmeted soldier and spotlights in the foreground.

Freed's work elicited interest from critics soon after he began to paint. He was included in two group shows in Houston galleries in 1949 and participated in annual group shows of Houston artists sponsored by the Museum of Fine Arts in 1950–52 and 1958–59. He also participated in group shows sponsored by the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston in 1953, 1956, and 1964. In 1956 the Alley Theatre in Houston hosted his first solo exhibition; his work was featured in shows at the Carol Lane Gallery (1969), at the Meredith Long Galleries (1972), and at the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Alliance Française of Houston, in the Shamrock Hilton (1973). Freed participated in many of the Dimension/Houston group shows sponsored by the Art League of Houston. His work was exhibited throughout Texas: at the Dallas Museum of Art (1966–67), the Junior Service League invitational show in Longview (1966–69), the El Paso Museum of Art (1968–69), and the Laguna Gloria Art Museum in Austin (1968–69). He received national attention in exhibitions at the National Academy of Design, New York (1951); the Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1952); the New Orleans Museum of Art (1967); and the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio (1968, 1973). Ten of his paintings were exhibited in the Kyoto Municipal Museum in Japan (1966). Among the more significant exhibitions of his work was a 1970 solo show in Mexico City, where Mexicans accustomed to an art of social protest responded to his vision of the "American Scene distorted by the . . . social and political chaos which prevails everywhere today."

In an article on his art Freed categorized a naive painter as "one who expects to make a living at it." He stressed that he was mainly interested in conveying ideas and noted a sense of kinship with Pieter Brueghel, William Hogarth, Honoré Daumier, Ben Shahn, and Edward Hopper, all of whom used art to comment upon or respond to their respective societies. He was aware of the abstract and minimalist styles practiced by his contemporaries, but preferred his own style of simplified realism to communicate ideas.

In 1950 Freed married Eleanor Kempner, who later became an art critic for the Houston Post. They had no children. Their travels in the United States, Europe, Mexico, and Israel provided additional material for Freed's art. He was a member of the Congregation Emanu El and served as president of the Houston chapters of the American Jewish committee and the American Association of United Nations. He was diagnosed as having cancer in 1973, but he taped several interviews and continued to paint between cycles of treatment. He died on December 23, 1975. His work has been included in several exhibitions since his death, and in 1983 the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston commemorated his work in the exhibition Frank Freed: People and Places. Freed's work is represented in the collections of the Museum of Fine Art, Houston; the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio; the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin; and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Eleanor Freed, "Frank Freed's Visual Reflections on the Human Comedy," University of Houston Forum 2 (Spring 1973). Frank Freed, "Artist on Art," Southwest Art Gallery Magazine, March 1972. Houston Post, December 24, 1975. Cecilia Steinfeldt, Texas Folk Art: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Southwestern Tradition (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1981).

  • Peoples
  • Jews
  • Visual Arts
  • Graphic Arts
  • Painting
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Kendall Curlee, “Freed, Frank,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022,

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January 1, 1995
January 5, 2017

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