By skill and temperament, Lillian Orlowsky (1914-2007) was perfectly suited to become the artistic revolutionary her life’s work would reveal. She, along with her husband and fellow artist, William Freed, were in the vanguard of the cultural transformation in American art in the 1930s to 1950s, one of the greatest periods of American social upheaval as well. In the mid 1930’s, a mere 20 year-old, she began to work in the coveted “easel” division of the federal Works Progress Administration, and would come to form lifelong bonds with many of her fellow WPA artists, many of whom favored abstract expressionism, a style of art especially mastered by Hans Hoffman. She began to study with Hoffman in New York while continuing at the WPA, where she met her eventual husband, William Freed, while both were on a WPA paycheck line. He worked in the WPA “mural” division, a unit of the WPA that powerfully influenced the style and impact of art in public spaces in the late 1930s.
Over the course of more than 70 years in art, Orlowsky was prodigious and influential artist whose own works stand along side those of Hoffman, who brought from Germany a direct lineage in European Modernism, as expressed by some of Hoffman’s contemporaries – Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and Kandinsky, to name a few of the now well-known “avant garde.” Along with countless other artists from the New York Art world, Orlowsky (and Freed) would join them to work, live and study at the Hans Hoffman School of Fine Art in the then remote seaside village of Provincetown, MA. Orlowsky especially felt the pull to live in Provincetown permanently, and they became deeply rooted there, from 1938 until her death in 2007.
While she was deeply influenced by Hoffman, she never mimicked Hoffman. She claimed Hoffman taught her how to see – and the deconstruction of objects she portrayed with brisk and ample application of paint won her Hoffman’s favor and regard, particularly because her choice of subject and pallete were so different from Hoffman’s. For example, she often painted pictures of a doll she had from her youth, and the evolution of those paintings – from early realistic paintings to later expressionistic images of the doll – show how she matured both as an artist and a person.
Freed and Orlowsky married in 1942, at the age of 40 and 27 respectively, and shared another 42 years as a creative duo without peer. She would live for another 20 years, creating some of her most compelling works and exhibitions in the final years of her life as well. During their lifetime together, they shared and shaped a significant chapter of art history – the dramatic arc from realism to abstraction – along with Hoffman and with other great Provincetown artists such as Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Sam Feinstein and Jackson Pollock. WPA also served as a collegial and enduring wellspring for the friendships and art work of Freed, Orlwosky, and their colleagues.
Freed and Orlowsky also influenced the art world through their acquisition of the works of other 20th century American artists, some of whom are now widely recognized and some who are little known. By trade, barter, and/ or gifts, they came to own a sizable group of artworks created by their colleagues and friends. This collection would not only serve as the basis for numerous and important collections which Orlowsky donated to several museums, including the Cape Museum of Fine Arts, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, and the Rose Museum at Brandeis University among others. The remaining paintings and drawings represent a remarkable selection of mid-century American modern art by some of the twentieth century’s most important artists, including Hans Hofmann, James Gahagan, Alice Hodges, George McNeil, Fritz Bultman, and Robert DeNiro, Sr. Through their influence and their collections, they also created the Lillian Orlowsky and William Freed Foundation Grant through a 2009 endowment to PAAM (The Provincetown Art Association and Museum) which annually recognizes a talented American artist over the age of 45 who demonstrates financial need in the pursuit of art. This award also serves to bring attention to artists who deserve but lack adequate recognition.