Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Beverly Hills Housewife (on Betty Freeman)

David Hockney, "Beverly Hills Housewife"

On Saturday, January 3rd, 2009 the world lost one its "great ladies"—as Earl Powell III, the former director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art once described Betty Freeman. She died in her Beverly Hills home at the age of 87 of pancreatic cancer.

Born as Betty Wishnick, the daughter of a wealthy chemical engineer, Betty grew up in Brooklyn and New Rochelle, New York before studying music at Wellesley College. Upon graduating, she married the investor Stanley Freeman, moving with him to Los Angeles, where they had four children.

Like so many wealthy citizens of Beverly Hills, Betty could have easily spent the rest of her life as the "housewife" type as David Hockney had portrayed her, a woman living in relative ease in her well-appointed home. And, in fact, Betty remained in that famed house for the rest of her life.

Yet Betty was anything but the iconic image Hockey had portrayed in his 1966 painting. In 1964, two years earlier, she met the American composer and inventor of unusual instruments, Henry Partch, who was living in his car. Freeman provided him with a studio and covered his living expenses for ten years until his death in 1974. She had already taken a great interest in contemporary music, and in 1961 contributed to the bail out of Fluxus composer La Monte Young, who had been arrested on marijuana charges in Connecticut. He responded by dedicating a work to her.

The same year that she encounted Partch, she became the producer of a new music series at the Pasadena Museum of Art (now the Norton Simon Museum of Art). In 1969, she underwrote Partch's opera Delusion of the Fury at the University of California, Los Angeles. And so began a philanthropic endeavor that included support to most of the great experimental composers of her time, including Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Harrison Birtwistle, Steve Reich, Lou Harrison, Kaija Saaiaho, and John Adams, whose opera Nixon in China was dedicated to her.

While producing a documentary about Partch in 1972, she was asked to help with the photographs, which resulted in a new career of photographing noted musicians, works later shown in galleries and published in several books.

In the early 1980s Betty began celebrating her musician friends through salons in her Beverly Hills home. My companion Howard and I attended several of those events, including one for John Adams, an event celebrating a series of pieces written for singer Joan LaBarbara, a performance of works Gordon Getty, and others. Being able to hear the composer and performers in the intimate space of a large living room was a memorable experience, and Howard and I always felt saddened when we were unable to attend. After these Salotti, Betty's second husband, the Italian artist Franco Assetto, would serve up large bowls of pasta and salad, accompanied by various drinks. Guests would mingle, discussing what they had just heard with one another, the composers, and performers. It was at one such event that I first met director Peter Sellars. The salons ended with Assetto's 1991 death.

Over the years Betty became a dear friend who, at times, would invite us over for small dinners, usually with one or two others. I recall one evening she invited us upstairs to her bedroom to listen to Nixon in China.
While Freeman was a magnanimous individual, with the ability to inspire a true dedication to the new, she was not without her eccentricities. People who attended more traditional concerts with her, found her intolerant of older work. And in the last years of her life, she had seemingly abandoned American composers for contemporary European figures, the fact of which understandably upset many friends.

In October or November of 2006, Betty called me, suggesting a luncheon to discuss some new projects she was considering publishing. The day of the luncheon she called, saying she had just broken her foot! We met, accordingly, at her home a few weeks later on December 28.

The glorious Beverly Hills home had been radically altered. We dined on excellent carry-in food, but the kitchen was overwhelmed by piles of dirty dishes. Obviously, the maid had not been in for several days. The grand hallway was filled with piles of photographs and various applications for musical aid.

She took me upstairs to her study. She had three books which she was interested in publishing. One was a semi-critical study of the art of her friend Sam Francis, the second a collection of interviews by music critic Alan Rich of the figures who had appeared in her Salotti, and the third a book of reproductions of visually entertaining faxes sent to her over the years by director Robert Wilson.

I explained to her that I was not the right publisher to do the Francis book, but that the other two were interesting projects, particularly the interviews with the musicians. She seemed, however, more engaged in placing musicians within the context of her salons (each section was introduced by the salon invitation, often hand-corrected and of little visual interest) than in Rich's interviews with the artists.

A call to Alan Rich revealed that he had been somewhat frustrated by Betty's focus, and that he would rather move ahead with the book without her. I had lunch with him a few weeks later, and we signed an agreement for the work in which we would explain the context of these interviews in an introduction rather than reproduced invitations.

Betty was still interested, however, in publishing the Wilson book—which she wanted to be published in the size of the large 8 x 12 faxes (an idea from which I tried to dissuade her)—and called me in late March of 2008 proposing another meeting which, unfortunately, because of my procrastination and my own illness soon after, never took place.

Our last encounter with Betty was at the opening on May 9, 2007 of "Dan Flavin: A Retrospective" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Betty, in a wheel chair propelled by a young man, was radiating with joy from the artist's fluorescent tubes of blood-red lights. "Isn't this just glorious?" she rhetorically asked. She literally glowed against the banks of Flavin's lights, convincing me, in fact, that everything was glorious. I leaned over to kiss her as she almost giggled with delight.

Betty has one of the most gracious women I have even known, a woman who had a passion for life, and who was a grand and original philanthropist who contributed to music and art not only with money, but with her heart.

Los Angeles, January 13, 2009

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