The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

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NOV 2021 Issue

John Ferren: From Paris to Springs

John Ferren, <em>The Vase</em>, 1956. Oil on canvas, 73 x 64 inches. Courtesy Findlay Galleries.
John Ferren, The Vase, 1956. Oil on canvas, 73 x 64 inches. Courtesy Findlay Galleries.

On View
Findlay Galleries
October 4 – November 12, 2021
New York

John Ferren’s extraordinary biography can sometimes overshadow his achievements as a painter. Born in Oregon in 1905, he spent some youthful years in the 1930s in Paris, where he befriended Gertrude Stein, and was embraced by the Parisian avant-garde. The budding artist even helped Picasso stretch the huge canvas for Guernica (1937). Back in New York, in the 1940s, Ferren became an Abstract Expressionist stalwart, who caroused with de Kooning and others, and was a regular at the Cedar Street Tavern. Ferren co-founded The Club, and served as its president in 1955. Meanwhile, he collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock as an artist-consultant on The Trouble with Harry, starring Shirley MacLaine, released that same year. Ferren created all of the works painted by the film’s fictional artist, Sam Marlowe, played by John Forsythe. Several years later, he reunited with Hitchcock on the celebrated 1958 film Vertigo; he designed Scottie’s (the James Stewart character’s) hallucinogenic dream sequence, as well as painted the Portrait of Carlotta, Kim Novak’s doppelganger, which is central to the story. In the 1960s, Ferren shared a property in the Hamptons with de Kooning, and was a central figure on the scene in the artists’ enclaves of Long Island until his death in 1970.

Ferren was a well-regarded painter and teacher throughout his career, and this concise survey of some 29 works—his first solo in more than a decade—offers an opportunity to trace his diverse stylistic evolution. Generally, the hardedge abstractions of his early years give way to the exuberant painterly compositions of his Ab Ex period in the 1940s and ’50s; then, near the end of his life, in the late 1960s, he returned to a vocabulary of spare, hardedge forms—only one smallish example of which, Red Violet (1968), appears in the show. Early abstractions here, such as the gouaches Untitled VIII (1932), and Mallorca (1933), featuring blocky, architectonic forms, demonstrate the influence that Constructivism and School of Paris trends like Cubism and Orphism, had on the young artist. It is noteworthy that two of Ferren’s 1937 works, from his Paris period, were among the first pieces by an American artist acquired by Solomon R. Guggenheim.

John Ferren, <em>Tierra Caliente</em>, 1961. Oil on canvas, 65 x 57 inches. Courtesy Findlay Galleries.
John Ferren, Tierra Caliente, 1961. Oil on canvas, 65 x 57 inches. Courtesy Findlay Galleries.

In the 1940s, Ferren adopted the angst-ridden, post-war language of gestural abstraction, unfolding in Europe as Art Informel and, in America, dubbed Abstract Expressionism. Compositions such as Night Fugue (1947) and The Desert and Flowers (1948), in which loosely rendered geometric shapes mesh with networks of staccato brushstrokes and fluid lines, correspond to contemporaneous works by New York artists, such as Arshile Gorky, and Robert Motherwell. Ferren seems to have caused a stir in the 1950s with a series of “Vase” paintings. A riveting example from the series, The Vase (1956), is a large composition (73 by 64 inches) featuring narrow, symmetrical curving lines in black and white that suggest the outline of a translucent vessel, perhaps made of glass. In between the sinuous markings, fervently applied dabs of purple, red, and yellow pulsate across the surface. Flourishes of metallic silver and gold pigment—visible only up close—further activate the shimmering surface.

Ferren received flak from some Ab Ex cohorts because of the figurative aspects of the “Vase” series. While attracted to the precepts of Taoism and Buddhism, he never strictly adhered to the canon of any art movement, which made him something of a renegade among his peers. A number of his most intensely gestural compositions appear wholly abstract at first, but on careful viewing reveal some figurative reference. In Dog Walker (1958), for instance, the feverish clusters of brushstrokes in orange and brown against a beige background, stretching from the top toward the center of the large canvas (73 by 55 inches), suggest a dog’s furry back, and a thick band of brown, extending from the lower center toward the bottom of the canvas, calls to mind a leash, reenforcing the notion that this image, indeed, conveys a dog walker’s point of view.

Ferren, however, hit his stride in the late 1950s and early ’60s, with a series of purely abstract compositions with centralized tangles of brightly colored lines set against monochrome backgrounds of contrasting, searing hues. Some of the most striking works on view, such as the luminous Tierra Caliente (1961), and My Irish Rose (1962), appear akin to certain works of the Ab Ex period by Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, and others. Ferren’s formidable contribution to mid-20th-century painting, though—as evidenced by the works in this exhibition—is a rather idiosyncratic fusion of New York School tenets and the lessons of the Parisian avant-garde that captivated him in his youth.


David Ebony

David Ebony is a contributing editor of Art in America. He is also the author of monthly columns for Yale University Press online, and Artnet News.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

All Issues