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It was during a Leo Steinberg lecture on Picasso I had wandered into a good many years ago that I first heard of the lesser known and atypical member of the Ab Ex generation, John Ferren. In a digression on originality, fashion, and historical timing, Steinberg told of a visit to Ferren’s New York studio in the mid 1950s in which he found the artist perplexed by a painting he had just completed. It was a large vertical canvas dominated by a coldly symmetrical hourglass shape. Needless to say it was a contentious outlier in relation to the definitive look Abstract Expressionism had settled into by then, drawing sustenance from enthusiastic and well-heeled collectors. Not sure what to do with it, Ferren kept the canvas in his studio. Just a few years later a twentysomething Frank Stella exhibited one of his Black Paintings in MoMA’s Sixteen Americans and for all intents and purposes took possession of the historical narrative.
Considering the range, ambition, and restless seeking that defined Ferren’s career — characteristics that are on full display at David Findlay Jr. Gallery this month — the notion that he stumbled across a crucial aspect of Minimalism in 1955 (notwithstanding Ad Reinhardt’s and Barnett Newman’s proto-minimalist efforts) should not be surprising. However, the implication of Steinberg’s anecdote — that Ferren never received credit for having made the same basic discovery that made Stella’s career — is in the context of Ferren’s oeuvre somewhat beside the point.
Ferren was born in Oregon in 1905, studied in San Francisco, and lived in France from 1931 to 1938, where he was exposed firsthand to the many art movements that defined pre-World War II European art. Consequently, his work grew eclectic and wide ranging. What’s clear, even in the small Findlay exhibition, is how Ferren’s lifelong dedication to Zen and to the spiritual in art informed his many styles in ways that likely precluded enticements to choose just one. From the 1933 canvas “Grazioso,” with its clear debt to both Picasso and Miró, through “Dance” from 1962, which could fit neatly onto the wall of a Lower East Side gallery today, Ferren’s restive approach led him on many occasions to examine styles for a short period only. He did not so much work outside the mainstream as circle it continuously in a personal and highly meditative quest for meaning.
“The Butterfly Bowl” of 1956 is as close as the exhibition gets to the mid-century symmetry to which Steinberg was witness. Yet in its direct application of color and modestly gestural assertions it seems oddly contemporary. Other works, like “Hot” from 1966, relate superficially to what Kenneth Noland was doing at the time with horizontal bands, but the contradictory lower rectangle indicates an unwillingness to rely on formalist rigidity. “Peace” from 1965 opposes elliptical shapes, reminiscent of both African shields and Stella’s protractor designs, against traditional constructivist blocks of color. It’s too bad there are no examples of his work just prior to his return from Europe in 1938 like the Smithsonian’s “Blue in Space” (ca. 1937); its uncanny similarity to what Stella ended up doing in the 1990s would be hard to miss for anyone who has seen the Stella retrospective at the Whitney Museum.
Ferren’s works must have seemed highly unorthodox when they were first exhibited, with Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock in ascendancy and later with Noland and Stella dominating the covers of Artforum. Today the hybrid of stasis and fluidity in Ferren’s works may strike young painters, unburdened by the baggage that defined the zeitgeist of the 1960s and ’70s, as inspiring. They of all people ought to be able to ease into this work. Aside from their loose catholic diversity, his canvases reveal a confident, talented, and fearless artist maintaining a focus on meaning, not just appearance.