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Installation view of ‘John Ferren (1905–1970)’ at David Findlay Jr. Gallery (photo by Jeffrey Sturges, all images courtesy David Findlay Jr. Gallery)

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.

John Ferren, “Grazioso” (1933), oil on canvas, 21 x 25 inches

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.

John Ferren, “The Butterfly Bowl” (1956), oil on canvas, 69 x 56 inches (click to enlarge)

“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.

John Ferren, “Hot” (1966), acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches

John Ferren, “Dance” (1962), oil on canvas, 22 x 22 inches

Installation view of ‘John Ferren (1905–1970)’ at David Findlay Jr. Gallery (photo by Jeffrey Sturges)

John Ferren (1905–1970) continues at David Findlay Jr. Gallery (724 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through November 28.

Peter Malone

A lifelong resident of NYC and environs, Peter Malone is an exhibiting artist, a retired assistant professor of art, an involved grandfather, and an amateur musician. He really has no time to write art reviews ... but does so anyway because...

4 replies on “The Elusive Painter Who Predicted Minimalism in the Mid 1950s”

  1. Yes, Ferren did anticipate the decade of post-painterly abstraction, minimalism and op art, but so did the “Abstract Classicists” – and let’s just say Ellsworth Kelly will remain for good reason in narratives as the one who (beginning with 1950 or so) pushed European geometric abstraction towards the future American “color field” and minimal painting. (There was Ad Reinhardt too, but Reinhardt was spiritual like Malevich, while Kelly appropriated colors of flags and shapes of various mundane things.)

    Ferren may be a decent non-canonical abstract painter of USA’s glory age, but nothing like this goes around without interests.

  2. Abstract Expressionism was Cannonized shortly after it was discovered. What’s surprising is how swiftly it defined by a handful of artists and rigid and doctrinaire. I laugh to myself as the establishment of Abstract Expressionism is roughly contemporary to Joe McCarthy’s red scare and his House Committee of UN American Activities. If you step back and examine both The Abstract Expressionist Cannon as written by Greenberg as well as others and the HUACC, they both share erratic logical flaws and an insular rigidity. They both seem to be very much a product of the fear in the mid 50’s. The HUACC a direct result and The Abex Cannon having similarities with the HUACC.

    This also resurfaced in the 90’s in a different way when the New Yorker wrote an absurd article about Abstract Expressionism being a C.I.A plot designed to confuse and disrupt Communism as well as a declaration of American cultural superiority. Art as propoganda and disinformation. Except that it never happened

    Then as now criticism seems to cover but a very small fraction of whatever art is being made, usually work that is already established by galleries, museum and other critics. It becomes very insular and inbred fast . It’s also the things that make the Oscars unwatchable. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen to art criticism. Although in some ways in it’s self congratulary fashion it has. Under these circumstances, it’s very easy to see how John Ferren was left out. Especially at the amidst the clamoring that was “The Triumph of American Painting “.

    I look for critics to tell me what I don’t know about rather than what
    I already do.

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