David Freed wrote two letters to Ruth Borchard from north London. In the first, dated ‘Feb.6, 1964’, he wrote:
‘I feel I should tell you that I am not British but American. I am working as a research student at the Royal College and the length of my stay in England depends initially on finance. Right now I am on a Fulbright exchange grant.’
In her notebook, Ruth wrote by his name: ‘(USA) Yg C’s 64 [she had seen his self-portrait in the 1964 ‘Young Contemporaries’ exhibition of nationwide students’ art in London], 5gns.’ Born in 1936 in Toledo, Ohio, David Freed came to London in 1963 to study print-making. Since 1965, he has been a tutor in print-making at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia.
Made in 1964, the lithograph shows the artist aged twenty-eight. The large, dark eyes, heavily shadowed towards the bridge of the nose, and overcast by thick, overarching eyebrows, convey the challenging air of a sulky young ‘prophet’ or intellectual rebel perhaps. The somewhat gaunt, bony face, slightly angled to the right, has strongly accentuated features. Subtle yet dynamic lines curl finely around the eyes, fall lightly on the temples. Bolder lines are richly enmeshed to describe the thick dark hair. Contrasting with the dark backdrop, his slender, sinewy neck, forehead, chin and left cheek – all skilfully conjured up mostly out of expanses of blank paper – appear luminous. This picture helps illustrate the poet Charles Wright’s observation: ‘There’s a kind of mordant wit that informs all of Dave’s work, a scintillation that often goes, and shouldn’t, unnoticed.’
The self-portrait has a strong European Expressionist feel to it. From 1959-61 Freed was taught print-making by Mauricio Lasansky at the University of Iowa; Lasansky had worked with a number of master print-makers, many of whom were refugees from wartime Europe, in New York.
Freed has described being ‘a kinda mini-mini-celebrity at the Royal College. I was not really a celebrity, but I came from America. That was a big deal to these English… Hockney had just been to America and done these Rake’s Progress prints… Peter Blake was around. And Bacon actually had a studio very close to the Royal College.’
His 2001 retrospective exhibition catalogue depicts, on its front cover, a 1999 self-portrait etching, in which, against a black background, his wispy grey hair seems to explode outwards like splashes of white paint, his huge glasses framing not only big, percipient, melancholic eyes but also deep pools of white reflected light.