PRINT April 1971

An Interview with Herbert Ferber

How different has it been, being a carver during the ’30s and now dealing in sculpture more directly?

THE WORD DIRECTLY IS MISLEADING. How can one be more direct than by carving? Additive sculpture is another misleading term. I can think of collage as a word to be used about sculpture because as in painting, pieces which have an existence of their own are put together, using some form of adhesive as a connecting link. Is that what you mean? Is that the kind of thing you mean by additive? When you build a sculpture up from armature in clay or wax or plaster, by addition, you’re working towards a pre-conceived surface which is the surface of the sculpture: impenetrable, opaque, monolithic; the eye travels over the surface, it doesn’t penetrate. When you do carving, you work down to the same surface. You work down to a preconceived surface with the same attributes: it’s impenetrable; it’s opaque; it’s continuous; and the eye travels over the surface. The kind of work that I became interested in doing is the opposite of this and can be achieved by means of many techniques. It is sculpture which had to do with openings and with forms which relate to each other. This is a sculpture which has no surface or rather no continuous surface; a sculpture with which the eye and the hand and the body can identify kinematically. This is the major difference between these two forms of sculpture. My direction has been in terms of open sculpture; but, it’s even more than that, in that I think of my sculpture as consisting of forms, spaces, planes, biomorphic shapes, geometric shapes in relation to each other as if there was a kind of choreography taking place. At a certain moment, in any choreographed dance, there’s a stop, a pause. Similarly, there is a pause in the sculpture. If your eye moves, the choreography, the dance, continues and as you move around such a piece of sculpture or in the “Environment,” the relationship of the parts changes optically. A kind of movement occurs. That’s why for my sculpture and from my point of view, it’s unnecessary to put the sculpture on a base and to move it. Your eye does that. As long as one’s eye moves around the sculpture, the sculpture can remain static. The sculpture doesn’t actually move, but one’s eye moves and makes it appear as if the sculpture is moving. It doesn’t allow a new dimension to allow the sculpture to move. This is now, of course, different from Tinguely’s sculpture which is automated with an idea in mind of some comment on society, or of automated work which has motion beyond the scope of the eye such as in Len Lye’s work. From what I’ve just said, you can see that terms descriptive of technique are less important than the concept.

Do you accept the traditional descriptions of sculpture as an art in, which forms displace space and in which light is a vital factor?

No. I once wrote an article in which I said that traditional monolithic sculpture displaced space in the way that a ship displaces water. The kind of sculpture I do and the kind of sculpture which is called “spatial” or “linear” or “sculpture with important spaces” has nothing to do with that principle. It’s a kind of sculpture in which both the spaces and the forms are equally important. As for light, I think of light as simply revealing the sculpture insofar as it reflects the light. This holds true for any solid and it holds true for painting, too. I don’t think there’s anything metaphysical about the way light hits a surface. It’s simply a source of energy which is translated into visual terms.

What was it about Henry Moore’s sculpture that had interested you?

I had myself become less interested in making figurative sculpture. I had gone through a period making Expressionist sculpture and I had found that to be a rather dry path. Henry Moore’s sculpture used biological or biomorphic or humanoid forms in a sculptural fashion which pleased me. Why it pleased me is difficult to say beyond that. It more or less came to me at the same time that I myself wanted to stop doing figurative sculpture. He was, at that time, doing sculptures which were hardly figurative or slightly figurative or very much influenced, as I myself was earlier, by pre-Columbian sculpture. In other words, pre-Columbian sculpture and Henry Moore’s sculpture were very close and they were more invented than figurative. This is what interested me, perhaps that’s the key.

Did Surrealism affect your sculpture via painting?

Do you mean, was it Surrealist painting or Surrealist sculpture?

That, or even the Surrealist artists then coming to America.

After I became interested in doing sculpture which was not naturalistic, but still figurative, I began to make Expressionist sculptures. It was therefore not too great a jump to Surrealism in terms of my appreciation of it. Later, the influx of European artists into America at the time of the war was very important. We were able to see their work more frequently; we were able to see them and how they acted; to hear reports of their conduct. Their whole life style affected the lives of American artists. The Surrealists had obviously thought of the enterprise as a life-consuming procedure not to be done in one’s spare time. So, we became more serious, I think, too. Many of us became very much interested in the forms and ideas of Surrealism; that is, the doodle, the automatic writing, the dream, and so on. All these were new ideas presented to us by the Surrealists in their manifestos, in their writings, in their art. It was both the painting and the sculpture of the European Surrealists which I found equally moving.

How did you get He Is Not A Man to feel right although it is compositionally awkward (or untraditional) and has a kind of irrational tone?

All sculpture and all painting are composed, in one way or another. Even a line on a piece of paper is a composition. The only people who were not concerned with that kind of composition were perhaps artists who had no paper or canvas—but I’m not sure of this. I’m trying to think of the primitive artist who made a line in the sand. I think what’s more to the point is that all invented forms have to be placed; I include figurative or naturalistic forms. In other words, as soon as they go through the hand of man, they’re invented. When they’re placed in a context, they are composed. Now this composition can be a rational one or an irrational one. That is, it depends on the emphasis in which the artist believes. Neither one or the other is wholly true and I think in my own work, the irrational is extremely important. This doesn’t mean that I don’t constantly censor what I’m doing by trying to make it look better. Now by look better, I don’t simply mean to make it more pleasing. It can look more awkward; it can look more aggressive; it can look more rhythmical. In other words, it has to look more like what I intended it to be when I started. This intention changes as one works, too. So that the composition, the irrationality, the invention, all these get mixed up and confused because no one of them is really the answer to the program.

Yet, He Is Not A Man is so top-heavy, doesn’t it look as if it’s going to fall on its face?

It’s funny, it’s an association that you’ve made. That is, the association of instability. Nobody thinks of a tree as being unstable, though you don’t visualize the roots. When you see a spreading elm or oak, you don’t think that it’s going to fall. That’s only because you’ve seen it so many times in its upright position, you know it’s not going to fall except under extreme conditions of wind or weather. He Is Not A Man may have an awkwardness and a top-heaviness, but it is as stable as a tree.

Do you think that the relation of First Generation sculpture to Europe was different from that experienced by the First Generation painters?

No. I think the kind of experience was very similar, although since the medium was different, we expressed it differently. Verbally, we expressed it in very similar terms. Don’t forget that we were a very closely knit group. The artists who were being shown at that time at Kootz, Betty Parsons, Sidney Janis, and Charles Egan were all friends and there weren’t many of us—there was a handful. We saw each other very frequently, very often in our homes, but also in bars and around the street. We talked at great length to each other and what we talked about were the problems of art. That is, what art was going to become under our influence. We were very serious about it. But the verbal terms of sculptor and painter were indistinguishable. As a matter of fact, most of my friends were painters—and only, I think, because there were fewer sculptors.

Do you think it was necessary for your art to go through a mythic phase to achieve an abstract style?

Again, I don’t think of using that term to describe the Surrealist sculpture or semi-Surrealist sculpture I did. The sculpture which I did in the late ’40s had a Surrealist tinge, but it certainly wasn’t Surrealist in the way the Europeans were Surrealist. It was a modification of that. It was less figurative. It had an irrational quality which delved into the subconscious, perhaps, but it did not involve any myth. Neither was I concerned with traditional thinking in relation to God-like figures or spirits or anything of that nature. It was just a very realistic use of the subconscious or unconscious to help probe one’s psyche.

Maybe mythic is the wrong word . . .

I see what you’re getting at: what you’re looking for is some kind of reasonable bridge which will span the gap between representation and abstraction. I don’t think it’s necessarily a Surrealist phase. I know artists who simply jumped from representational forms to abstract forms. In my case, it was a phase; but, I’m not sure it was a necessary road to abstraction. It was a phase through which I passed. There are still, I suppose, Surrealistic elements in my sculpture, although it’s much more formal than the word Surrealism indicates.

When you made sculptures which had movable parts, were you concerned with whether you did the moving or the owner did the moving or the museum curator or even if a visitor to an exhibition took part?

That’s an interesting point. Since they were not moved by chance, it always had to be some kind of formal intelligence that was moving them, either mine or somebody else’s. I discovered very soon that it settled down to two or three, at the most, relationships which were satisfactory—although there were an infinite number of them since the board was perforated at every inch on vertical and horizontal lines. If one had some sense of proportion, balance, composition, one ended up with two or three possibilities. I also realized after having made two or three of these, that it was too much of a game. The artist should really set the limits. No one thinks of rearranging the color of a painting. Now this is true in a way with sculpture that moves in the wind. It’s certainly true of sculpture which is moved by a machine. The artist sets the limit with the machine; he also sets the limit with the wind because he sets the possibilities of movement. Although the wind may come from forty different directions, it can only affect the sculpture in a limited number of ways and he knows that. So, I think that eventually the artist has decided on the positions.

Do you think that there was ever such a thing as action sculpture?

I don’t think there was ever such a thing as action painting, much less action sculpture. All action painting and any sculpture that is equated with it, in some way, is really a process of trying and eliminating. Paintings can ordinarily be done, naturally, more rapidly than a sculpture, but don’t forget that the inception of the idea in a sculpture is, with me at least, in some sort of drawing. There it might be equivalent to the speed of painting. There are very few painters I can think of who were action painters; even Pollock, who is considered a prime example of it, kept modifying his paintings simply by addition. Don’t forget addition seems to be more of a positive action than erasing or removing, but in a sense it’s the same. If there’s an area that needs change, it can be done by removing and adding, or by just adding, and Pollock actually kept adding all the time. De Kooning is thought of as an action painter and he did a lot of removing before he finished a painting. There were pounds and pounds of paint on the floor. Since sculpture is often a more solid affair in terms of weight and material, it is more difficult, perhaps, to change; but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. I think the term “action” is a misnomer and misleading.

Having made an award-winning sculpture for the Unknown Political Prisoner International Competition in 1952, do you think it would still be possible today to work with such a theme in art?

I must give you the history of that first, which will perhaps be the answer. I wanted to make a large sculpture. This had been for many, many years my ambition and I’ve made many of them now. At that time I hadn’t, and this seemed like a great opportunity.The rather corny idea presented as the title for such a competition really put me off and I did not make a sculpture for that competition. I took an existing sculpture and submitted it. That spherical sculpture had originally been made to rest on its periphery (like one which you know in the collection of William Rubin). For the competition, I put it on a post so that it could be placed in a public square and seen in an architectural surrounding. The whole idea of making sculptures, or any work of art, for me and for our time, to correspond to a theme of that sort is foreign to my way of thinking. Now I have done sculptures, as you know, on synagogues which had titles, but I didn’t make them with the title in mind. As a matter of fact, for the synagogue in Milburn, the people wanted a line from the Bible to be the “inspiration,” as they called it, for a piece of sculpture. What I did was to look through drawings I had been making at that time which had started with plant forms and I chose a drawing and submitted it for the commission. When it was accepted, I then went on to make a sculpture. It had already been in existence. Then, later on, the title was placed under it and everybody saw in the sculpture “. . . and the bush was not consumed.”

Do you enjoy dealing with the problem of making architectural reliefs?

Yes, very much. That was really the interesting thing about making those sculptures I did for synagogues (certainly, since I’m not a religious man, it had no connection with that). The idea of making a relief which was different from other reliefs was important to me. All reliefs that I had known were either low reliefs or high reliefs, like the low reliefs of Egypt or Greece or the Hellenistic type of high relief. The kind of sculpture that I wanted to make as relief was really completely divorced from the wall, except as a support. They were not drawings. They had considerable depth. The one in Milburn stands at its highest point over three feet from the wall. It is open form sculpture, fastened to a wall.

What did you want to realize or achieve in the roofed sculptures?

The idea of breaking away from the traditional use of the base had been of great interest to me for years. For that reason, I had made horizontal sculptures resting on several points; I had made sculptures such as He Is Not A Man and this Horned Sculpture which stands on a point on which it can be rotated; I had made sculptures which stood on points and which could be moved on a board so that they had varying relations to the base. The purpose of the roof was to give the sculpture the freedom which an additional support could supply. Then, the wall or two walls which I added to the. roof gave further support which was different from the traditional base and allowed for different kinds of forms. This was a continuing interest which made use of the roof and the walls to substantiate it and which was to appear later in another device: the “cages.”

Do you like to try to defy gravity in your work?

Yes, very much so. In fact, you know my “cage” sculptures which followed the roofed sculptures and the Environmental sculptures developed from those precursors. In other words, what I was looking for was a support which would give, at least, the trompe l’oeil effect of not being affected by gravity. They don’t have the traditional base; they have another form of support. Of course, no one can avoid gravity, except by getting up where the spacemen are now. I’m interested, however, in avoiding the “sense” of being anchored to this earth through a base, a sculptural base.

Was the challenge of the paintings you exhibited in 1959 and the ’60’s related to sculptural problems?

I certainly wasn’t trying to translate sculptural problems. I was thinking as closely as I could to the surface of the support, but I was not trying to make a very flat painting in the contemporary sense of flat and I was certainly interested in not doing perspective painting. What I was interested in particularly was two things: one, color, just the use of color; and two, the elusiveness and challenge of capturing an image in a painting, which is an entirely different experience from that which one has as a sculptor. In sculpture, you don’t capture an image. You may have to work on it for months; one does not make very many changes, the changes are minor ones. With a painting, you can change the whole surface in half an hour and start over again. Or you can modify the painting so drastically in a few moments that you’ve got, really, a new picture. This doesn’t happen with sculpture. Also, I found the elusiveness of painting very exciting. You may have something, perhaps merely a suggestion, and if you don’t capture it, you’ve lost it. This never happens in sculpture. In sculpture, you really don’t lose anything; you may spoil it, but you don’t lose it. It doesn’t disappear. In painting, you can actually see the image just go. I found these things of importance. I didn’t think of the paintings as flattened sculptures although I used shapes which people have said were somehow related to my sculpture. I don’t really see that.

How did you evaluate the few painted sculptures that you have made?

It always seemed a very arbitrary way of handling the sculpture. That is, when the Greeks painted their sculpture, they used colors which resembled those of life: black hair, blue eyes, pink or red faces, something like that. When non-representational sculpture is painted, I can’t really see why red is better than blue for some particular part of it. I don’t mean that it isn’t attractive or that it isn’t useful in some way to make it more apparent that there are different shapes involved, but it also seemed to me that any part that is red or yellow could easily be the opposite. I’ve always thought that my own sculpture lends itself to color in one way or another, that is, using several colors because there are several parts in each sculpture. Each part is separate from the others so that they touch each other only at specific points. You could therefore make one part blue and another part red. I’ve never been sure whether that wasn’t a very arbitrary way of doing it, much more arbitrary certainly than the forms themselves. So that when I painted some sculptures, I used only two colors for each and in that way I merely tried to separate certain forms from other forms. I didn’t think it was vital to the sculpture. In some cases, I used one color for the entire work and that can produce an effect of a different kind.

How did you become concerned with making environmental sculpture during the late ’50s?

The environmental sculptures grew out of my having made roofed sculptures. It took several years before I realized that having made a sculpture with a roof, then having made a sculpture with a wall and a roof, and then a sculpture with two walls and a roof, that if I were to add two more walls, I would have a room. In other words, the idea of the “Environment” did not come to me as a concept prior to seeing the sculpture in actuality, first. When I had made the sculptures with walls and roof, I immediately began to think of placing mannequins in the sculpture to see how they would look for scale, for size. It was then, after several years of having made roofed sculptures, that I decided that adding two more walls would make a room. I realized then that the viewer inside the room and sculpture would have a fantastic experience, never before realized. In other words, seeing and moving about inside a sculpture and an architectural space, instead of looking at it from the outside. That’s the genesis of the “Environments.”

How do you feel about having work realized in a factory situation, like Milgo or Lippincott?

I think that all depends on how much supervision the artist is capable of rendering. By capable, I mean how much time he has, how much the factory is willing to allow without throwing him out. In other words, working in a factory situation is just as acceptable as working in a studio with help which you sometimes leave unsuperintended for a day or two, provided that they know what your wishes are. The same holds true for the factory. The only danger with the factory is that it will tend to standardize one’s forms according to those that are easiest for them to make or with which they are familiar from other people’s work. In other words, if they’ve been, as most factories have been, involved in the making of Minimal sculpture, they would tend to oversimplify the shapes that I give them unless I take strong stands in the opposite direction.

Do you find that you’ll be moved by seeing a form in nature to then incorporate what you’ve seen into a sculpture?

No. I would tend to eliminate anything that I see in nature if it should crop up in my work. It hardly ever does, but if it should I would tend to leave it out. I don’t want anything to recall the world of nature. As a matter of fact, I get a good many of my ideas about sculpture, not in a very sharply defined fashion, but certainly an idea of what a sculpture may become or be, when I’m at a concert listening to music.

How do you determine the material with which you proceed?

The sculptural idea determines the material. I think the material is unimportant other than for that reason. Some of the greatest sculptures have been made out of materials that have no value. I think that all the talk now about steel and stainless steel and bronze and brass and plastic is basically nonsense. There’s no doubt that using a material such as plastic, transparent glass, certain metals will tend to offer an idea, but it’s a minor idea. If that were the source of the so-called “inspiration” it would be pretty meager art. It has to be much more than that to start with. So, it’s easier for me to do the kind of open sculpture I do using sheet metal and bars than to use other materials. I would change my materials in a moment if I were to come up with some ideas that demanded it. To be sure, collage sculpture presents a different situation. The materials themselves have associative value and historical connotation.

Do you hope to reveal a specific content in your work?

Is there a specific content? There certainly is no subject matter, let’s rule that out. There is a content and the content is, I think, what we have talked about before. Namely, the kind of tension created by the parts of the sculpture in relation to each other, definite relationships. This physical tension should create, and does create, I hope, some kind of tension in the viewer. This is what makes a piece successful or not. Otherwise, it’s simply an exercise in geometric space, in composition in space. Only when the forms have created a sense of holding each other, moving against each other, is there some similar tension set up in the observer, a kind of kinetic tension. This is what the content is. I think it’s difficult to translate content into words simply. That’s the old story. That’s why we make a sculpture. It’s not possible to verbalize it completely.

Phyllis Tuchman