"Herbert Ferber: Painting, Sculpture & Drawing from the 1960s," Sept. 10-Oct. 30, 2004, at Valerie Carberry Gallery, 875 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60611
The American artist Herbert Ferber (1906-1991) came of age in an art world that seems utterly remote from our own time. He was already an established sculptor in 1946 when he joined the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City. Though this connection, he met Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and other artists who had abandoned the figure in their work.
Ferber would later say that these painters, who of course came to be known as the New York School, had faith in the "transcendence of the individual psyche as source material" for their work. These Abstract Expressionists were totally immersed in a process "which did not follow a prescribed formula and which produced no predictable result: a process which developed its own aesthetic logic as the artist proceeded, instead of following the traditional rules of composition, color, and form."
According to Ferber, the New York School was "so full of electricity that we didnt talk the kind of shop that I hear nowadays, which is where youre showing or what youre selling, or what commissions youve gotten. . . . it was always about the ideas involved in breaking away from or developing towards a new form or a new idea.
"Everybody knew everybody because there were only about a dozen people to know each other," he continued. The artists talked constantly and at great length about their work. They helped to hang each others shows and didnt expect to sell. Always they saw themselves as outsiders that society and the mainstream art world ignored. As the New York School artists achieved success, their early camaraderie disappeared. Ferber, who outlived most of his colleagues, was a passionate and productive artist to the end of his life.
The Carberry Gallery exhibition included four sculptures: Beebe (1967); Bills Discovery (1969); Mount Holly II (1969-70); and Calligraph, September 10, 1966 (1966). The works embody Ferbers expressive principles, which he termed "forms penetrating space," "forms holding space in tension" and "spaces and forms equally important."
Beebe, which measures 14½ inches tall, is made from long, flanged copper rectangles that the artist bent, twisted, assembled and welded into hollow units of triangular cross-section. He built these into a sculpture that suggests Arab calligraphy gone mad. Insistently three-dimensional and seemingly curled back upon itself, Beebe seizes and commands the space it inhabits.
The flanges in Beebe create soft shadows that draw the eye through the sculpture and make it appear more massive than it really is. Ferber liked working with copper because it was easy to bend and had a more luminous surface than Cor-ten steel, which rusts to a matte brown. He left the weld beads visible because he believed that a smooth sculptural surface looked academic.
Bills Discovery, which is 27 inches high and 67 inches wide, is also welded together from twisted triangular sections. This restless work draws in the eye and keeps it moving around its periphery and into space. By intention, Bills Discovery is empty at the center. As a young artist, Ferber carved Maillolesque nudes in wood. In time, he grew dissatisfied with monolithic sculpture and fled the center to create new forms.
Another work in painted Cor-ten steel, Mount Holly II, can function either as a large indoor or a small outdoor work. We see a tilted circle held up by a half circle, two arrow-like triangles that penetrate the circle and meet at the center to form one axis, and two curved lines that meet in the center and form a second axis at 90 degrees to the first. Mount Holly II is a peculiarly active piece that never seems to reach a stasis. Thrust and counterthrust relationships among its elements are the subject of this sculpture.
In 1952, while Ferber was building a large commissioned sculpture, he had to crawl inside of it to a point where he was completely surrounded by the forms. This experience, says the critic E.C. Goossen, made Ferber "acutely conscious that the internal spaces of sculpture were not limited to purely visual relationships between the viewer and the work." Goossen finds a parallel between Ferbers "physical immersion" and the practice of Jackson Pollock, who "moved around, over, and even into the canvas as the painting progressed."
Calligraph, September 10, 1966, a 19½-inch-high cast-bronze work, is a species of drawing in space, but not pictorial in the David Smith manner. A leaning form holds up a letter "c" in which the artist has placed a curious shape made of straight and curved lines. The entire piece seems ready to take flight.
Ferber calls this sculpture a "calligraph." In a 1968 interview, he denied any connection between his work and Chinese writing. Calligraph, he said, means that a sculpture "has a movement instead of being static and has a kind of gesture, which is expressive and doesnt depend, and depends to some extent upon its meaning, or for its meaning upon the gestural or calligraphic movement of the piece." A calligraph, in short, is purely visual, without narrative content.
Drawings and Paintings
Before he cast Calligraph, September 10, 1966, Ferber drew it in pencil, ink and wash. According to his widow, the artist made informal drawings in his summer studio. He left many of these behind and some of the five works on paper at the Carberry Gallery have never been exhibited before. While all of them show a base with a leaning sculpture on it, not every one looks like it could actually be constructed.
Untitled (1963) is the most exciting of the drawings -- and the least buildable. We see a furled cone at center left, rather improbably held up on a leaning shaft and a small arc. Even more improbably, the cone supports an upward-pointing shaft and a large sweeping arc that fills the right side of the drawing.
The elements in Untitled (1963) seem to be at war with each other. Ferber gives them great force by filling each form with parallel ink lines and very little wash. Other drawings, such as Untitled (1966), show cast forms in outline with a light internal wash to give them body.
The nine paintings in the Carberry show, mostly oil on paper, range from less than 10 inches in height to more than five feet tall. In Untitled (1960) we see interlocking abstract forms in black with white areas between them -- or possibly abstract forms in white surrounded by blackness. Untitled (1960)demonstrates how Ferber makes spaces and forms equally important.
Untitled (1960) is a passionate statement that the artist seems almost to have flung onto the paper. At the edges of the black areas, we can see some pencil lines from Ferbers underlying drawing. He used a wide brush to apply the black paint, did not fill in the outlines of his forms completely, allowed the paper to show through in some places, and left prominent drips.
As Untitled (1960) suggests, design and form mattered more to Ferber than finish. His goal in this painting was to put ideas down on paper -- nothing else mattered. This approach was influenced by Romanesque cathedral sculptures, which Ferber saw on a trip to France in 1938. He concluded that the Romanesque sculptors put form before figuration, narrative, and religious feeling. They inspired him to toughen his work and ultimately led to paintings like Untitled (1960). Other paintings in the Carberry show are more civilized and lyrical. Untitled (1961), for instance, is an elegant image of interlocking, colorful, vaguely organic forms.
In the days of the New York School, Ferber declared that he sought "an idea in a new language" and compared himself to James Joyce. "The contemporary artist," he said, "must actually crawl over every square inch of his work, touching, smearing, retouching, licking and spitting, expending himself over the whole thing and forcing it bit by bit to become, in an immediate way, himself."
This was how Herbert Ferber worked and lived. We dont see his like very often.