Mickey Friedman dies at 85; her design shows introduced future stars

Mickey Friedman dies at 85; her design shows introduced future stars
Frank Gehry and Mildred "Mickey" Friedman at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1986. (Walker Art Center Archives)

Mildred "Mickey" Friedman, a curator with a sharp eye for emerging talent who mounted a landmark 1986 show at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center that brought international attention to architect Frank Gehry, died Sept. 3 in New York. She was 85.

Her death after a long illness was confirmed by her daughter, Lise Friedman.


During more than two decades at the Walker, Friedman showcased the work of a generation of architects and designers who went on to renown, including not only Gehry but Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, Thom Mayne, Steven Holl, Billie Tsien and Tod Williams.

Other important shows she organized focused on the influence of the avant-garde Dutch art movement De Stijl and the modernist furniture of George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard and Robert Propst for the Herman Miller company.

She made the Walker into "America's leading museum of design," Architectural Record magazine said when she and her husband, longtime Walker director Martin L. Friedman, retired in 1990.

"Museums are supposed to be validators of the greats, not promoters of the unknown," Terence Riley, chief curator of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art for 15 years, said in explaining the conventional wisdom Friedman often defied. "Frank Gehry was a perfect example. It wasn't just that she gave him a show ... but she promoted him. She was one of the first to sense that her role was not to take care of the past but to create the future."

She expressed that urgency in a comment she once made about Gehry. "The real world today comes hurtling at you like a runaway truck, and either you can freeze up and let it run you down, or else you can jump to the side, take a flying leap, clamber on board, and struggle your way through the window and into the driver's seat," she said in a 2001 essay.

Friedman did not know Gehry when she conceived the show that would turn the obscure Los Angeles architect into a star, but "I had been reading about his work for a long time and I thought it was significant," she said in a 2004 interview posted on the Walker's website. "So one day I just called him and asked, 'How would you like to do an exhibition at the Walker Art Center?'And he said, 'Where?'"

She asked him to create several room-size enclosures that would be installed in the Walker's galleries to hold examples of his art and representations of his buildings. The structures — of which the most spectacular was shaped like a fish and sheathed in lead scales — invited immersion in the interplay of space, form and materials that would become known to a broad public as Gehry's hallmark.

"It is the right way to present the work of Mr. Gehry, who in many ways is the most misunderstood architect in the United States," Paul Goldberger, then the New York Times' architecture critic, wrote in his 1986 review.

The show, which traveled to Houston, Toronto, Atlanta and Los Angeles, "changed my life," said Gehry, who over the next decade won the Pritzker Architecture Prize and the commissions for Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. "Everybody started paying attention to me in a different way."

Friedman, he added, "was willing to take risks. That was a big deal. There has never been an architecture and design curator like she was when she was at full tilt" at the Walker.

Mildred Shenberg was born in Los Angeles on July 25, 1929. Her father, Nathaniel, was in the glass business and her mother, Hortense, was a homemaker and classical pianist.

She majored in design at UCLA, where she met Martin Friedman, a graduate student. They were married in 1949. She later taught design at Los Angeles City College.

Besides her husband and her daughter Lise, she is survived by daughters Ceil Friedman and Zoe Melendez, six grandchildren and a sister, Natalie Magistrale.

In the late 1950s the Friedmans moved to New York, where her husband took a position at the Brooklyn Museum. They relocated to Minneapolis when he was named the Walker's chief curator in 1958. He became director in 1961.


Friedman was working as an interior designer in Minneapolis when she signed on as a consultant helping architect Edward Larrabee Barnes design furnishings for a new building for the Walker. In 1969 she joined the museum's staff as editor of its journal, Design Quarterly. In 1979 she was named design curator.

In the 1980s she assembled a number of powerful shows, staged in a way that allowed visitors to experience architecture and design in a visceral way. One of these was the 1986 exhibit "Tokyo: Form and Spirit," co-curated with her husband and featuring cutting-edge work by Japan's leading designers and architects, including Arata Isozaki and Fumihiko Maki.

One of her last major shows at the Walker was 1989's "Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History," which argued the validity of graphic design as art through a 100-year survey of objects ranging from 19th-century cracker boxes to a 6-foot-high metal sign of the Mobil oil company's winged horse.

After leaving the Walker, Friedman and her husband moved back to New York, where she continued to organize shows, including a major 2001 Gehry retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum co-curated with J. Fiona Ragheb.

The exhibit "showcases history unfolding, even as we walk through it," New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp wrote. "Nothing, not even familiarity with Mr. Gehry's buildings, can prepare you for the impact of seeing his work presented in Frank Lloyd Wright's magnificent rotunda. The energy hits you on entering the show and increases as you proceed."

Friedman also wrote extensively about Gehry's work in books, including a series of conversations she edited in "Gehry Talks: Architecture + Process" (1999) and an examination of 21 residences he designed in "Frank Gehry: The Houses" (2009).

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