PRINT November 1979

Jackie Ferrara’s Il-lusions

TWO APPROACHES TO JACKIE FERRARA’S sculpture seem to prevail. One stresses its “architectural” nature, finding analogues or fantasies of buildings, and unfailingly refers to the pyramids; this reading views her work allusively, linking it to “architectural imagism” in recent art. The other—less trendy—approaches it through procedures or traditions, seeing Minimalism, reductivism and general abstraction in (again) “pyramids,” “stacking” and wood. The one looks out, the other, in; one accents content, the other, form. Sometimes a writer notes that Ferrara’s work “refers to antithetical esthetic positions.”1

But beneath the layers of labels, the objects, with their own patterns and layers, resist such simplification. “Pure” objects—timeless, abstract forms—they are hardly objects “simple.” They are, instead, highly complex, as a statement from Ferrara herself implies: “I’m interested in a form and in dividing up the form in an interesting way,” she says, with deceptive simplicity (italics mine).2 But how to make an object both involved and involving? An object both internally complex—divided and self-determined—and externally directed? An object that affirms and plays with its contradictory essence as a self-reflexive system of internal relations and a perceptual object related to its viewer? Ferrara’s sculpture might be regarded as enforcing a very serious notion of “play.”

Her earliest sculptures (1958–69) were unabashedly bizarre. A series of photographs shows fetishistic works, now mostly destroyed, in which fur, feathers, skulls, wax figures and other elements are assembled in rectangular boxes and shapes. Here, strings dangle from a feathered edge; there, a lid opens to a row of skulls; in another box is a carved figurine similar to Seneca and other aboriginal masks. Compulsive ordering and regularity3 characterize these and other works like the large rope structures that she made later, in 1971. But in 1972 there was a sudden shift as Ferrara began shaping canvas strips wrapped in cotton batting into rectilinear schemes. Their deadpan austerity differs radically from Ferrara’s earlier expressionism, but the same ordering and arranging runs through. In one, the batting layers, now looped over dowels and suspended from chains, hang in chevron patterns; in another, wide swaths arranged in long rows comprise permeable corridors—crevasses for shadow and light. These works undoubtedly reflect basic constructive processes, primed by visual sense, rather than specific influences or precedents; and, while they visually echo Morris’ felt pieces, as well as tne latex corridors by Eva Hesse, they are more probably studies in how arrangements of planes can invade space, alter light, or otherwise control their environment.

Exploration of mass characterizes the next year’s works, as Ferrara began to cover cotton batting over varied cardboard forms. These works set up her basic vocabulary: the sheets gave way to bricklike formations, to piles of long layers, or short modules, horizontally arranged. Such an additive mode of arrangement is not, strictly speaking, stacking: glue secures the batting layers, much as the later wood segments are nailed together, with separate sections secured by dowels. But the regularity of building—of one plus one plus one—is here established, to be mined for its infinite variations. Cubes, pyramids and spheres are shaped in a regular manner, stressing firm contours, precise reversals and steady incremental progressions. One piece is a tall, truncated pyramid, made of thin horizontals rising from a narrow base; in another, rows of steps reverse around a central point to shape a simple, symmetrical form. With different heights go different slopes; similarly, changes in increment result in edges ranging from barely inflected lines to sharp, staccato steps.

These works accentuate the refinements of modulation, of series changing element by element, row by row, according to shifts in proportion and speed. Against a background of Minimalist preoccupations, systemic procedures and regularizing intent, Ferrara seems, in these years, to have been finding her own voice. Changes in the purely additive structure of progressions, which cause curved as well as straight lines, gradual inflections and brusque, dramatic turns, become more evident in masonite and chipboard pieces begun late in 1973. The firm lineaments of wood now physically define the series’ progressions, leading to relations of form and concept (or external shape and internal rule) that can be divided and dialectically implicated. Between systematic measures and their mirroring in form Ferrara interposes elements of visual expectation and visual result. Thus the edge is a boundary marking side from side; but it can also be used (as in 1–15 Ramp, 1974) as a physical angle where increments meet, shift and divert the eye into equivocal structural readings.

Works like Ramp also establish Ferrara’s use of a form as a format—a matrix for geometric variations, mathematical progressions and interrelations of shape. Imageless objects, Ferrara refers to them as pyramidal “shapes,” as steplike “arrangements” and towering “forms.” They are distinguished from architectural sculpture by the absence of referents,4 and result from the simple manipulation of modular elements. In this, they are rather like motifs used for formal elaboration, but their structure is inherently derived. Thus, arranging rows in ascending levels yields a stairway formation; varying them down as well as up, and through lateral extension, gives a primitive pyramidal shape. This shape, which is Ferrara’s stamp, provides a more flexible format than a sphere or a cube: there is more room for variation, and further range for complication. The basic shape can be altered to odd-angled proportions; its scale and size shifted through incremental change; its internal patterns developed through two-dimensional triangles etched in three-dimensional form.

Rhythms and reiterated proportions provide the language for these and later works, which depend on syntactic variation. An inveterate puzzler and mystery-reader, Ferrara speaks of these pieces as problem-solving, and each sculpture can be seen as solving a mathematical problem, taken in a general, geometrical way. A branch of “recreational mathematics” called dissection theory treats just such visual ideas, which might be as simple as making an opening in a work’s base equal the size of its top, or as complex as the following rationale, ordering a sculpture from 1974: “At the 18th row up, where the pyramid is as high as its base is wide, the increment progression doubles. At this same row the width of the wood is equal to the width of the slatted core opening.” Such geometric relations provide guidelines for each work. They are meticulously determined in graph-paper drawings, then added to, adjusted, rearranged and, basically worked into the formal texture of the actual piece.

A subdued, “classical” demeanor characterizes the sculpture from 1974 like CAS Pyramid, rising thigh-high along a hollow, truncated core (Ferrara’s titles can often be decoded according to initials: c =curve, s= side, etc.). Structure here is wedded to design, as stacking rectangular layers of plywood now by two lengths, then two widths, and leaving, in each case, an empty third, gives both a tracery of external slatting and a “supporting” central void. An aerial view displays most clearly and completely the echoing shapes, with their differing proportions. One can see this structure laterally, reflected two ways: through the relation of internal pattern to external edge and through its mirroring in negative and positive spaces, open or doubled forms. For all their elegance, though, these sculptures incorporate dynamic visual shifts. The contours muted by mathematical progressions create visually warped lines and bulging curves, just as certain sides lean at distorted inclines. Since each sculpture has four sides that are separately determined in profile views, the viewer is required to move around the structures.

Exterior form is transparent to internal structure in these works, but as the surfaces are complicated, that connection increasingly is undermined. In Closed Pyramid, 1976, wedges and shafts as well as cores now punctuate planes, while progressions shape the triangular motif into schemes of slanted lines and interrelated surfaces. Although internally derived, these elements seem to move freely of the whole,5 affecting different cadences and speeds. Lines are set at skewed angles to read differently from disparate views. The variation between the stepped edges and the vertical planes, each with its own steplike designs, heightens this equivocation. Internal triangles vary and repeat each other, accenting and extending one another, and all is related to all.

The pyramids of these years are no longer truly “pyramidal shapes.” Footlike appendages now project from the cores. Similarly, late in 1977, Ferrara’s “towering” structures emerged. As the works became taller they became, correspondingly, more irregular; angles would shift so that there would be more verticals, more protrusions, more shifting, angular forms. Gradually the work reached its present height—around 6 to 7 feet—and its most characteristic scale, which is physically informed, affords a direct link between object and viewer.

That kind of human-scaled, multipartite sculpture, stressing internal rhythms and counterpoised shapes, is the opposite of the Minimalist work to which Ferrara’s is often compared. Much has been made of similarity to the additive ordering initiated by Andre and marking Minimalism as a whole, but the sensibilities are alien indeed.6 Ferrara’s sculptures, for one, are neither placed nor stacked, but subtly composed; fixity is implicit in their bonded parts, just as nonfixity is implicit in the specific elements that separate from the whole, setting up relationships within each work. Moreover, although certain modular systems direct each work, linking them to common Minimalist practice, such systems are both esthetically adjusted and savored for the intricacy they impel.

Such intricacy, too, serves another aim of questioning the very premise of “order.” The dynamics of legibility—the way structure is revealed or blocked in viewing—is a central concern in Ferrara’s recent work. Internal relations, their engendering schemes, the counterpoint of side with side and appended angle, are all subjected to another dialectic of object to viewer, or sculpture to perceiving eye. The visual process is accentuated in these works—the looking, the seeing, the marking of relationships and shifting position to deduce new relationships which, because they are superseded once again, only imply the failure of order. If balance and closure are the hallmarks of modernism, emanating from the terms of relational reading, those terms are here applied to a wider discourse on the interaction of art with its milieu.

Indeed, the terms of Ferrara’s discourse state, and complicate, certain irreducible sculptural issues, whether modernist or no. One concerns sculpture’s existence in space; the other, its apprehension through time. Simple terms, they are inevitably intervolved, as even Lessing was obliged to admit. Just as regularity or symmetry promotes a static viewpoint, so irregular form presumes a mobile viewer and a correspondingly active eye. Moving around the object serves as a method of scrutinizing form, transcending the partial information that a single aspect can convey. And, just as the body’s motion cuts a pathway in space, so, too, it inscribes a circuit through time: time is structured into sequential units, drawn out to its extended form, and opposed to the total, simultaneous instant of the unitary gestalt.

These temporal consequences of spatial form are obvious; less simple is the fact that the mind must receive new perceptions while retaining others, must order and equilibrate disparities, and must hold these discontinuous fragments in the complex of a temporal gestalt. That problem, central to all sculpture in the round, is usually met with a familiar response. Analysis, based in visual logic and the deduction of part-to-part relations, generally suggested an underlying order that might give coherence to the fluxive whole. Just as formal complexity invites visual analysis, muting perceptual into analytic time, so it tends to substitute for the evanescence of impressions the visual idea of structure. Yet the general movement of Ferrara’s sculpture calls into question the very notion that we can grasp or retrieve what we see. Although the static core suggests an underlying rule, although modular segments imply an ordered whole, there are more readings, interpretations and potential visual relations than can be accounted for by system or rule. Insolubility attends the impulse to solution: in the way the mind works over the elements of a riddle, the eye is constantly searching new relations, new solutions to a visual problem which, through endless renewal, nears the level of enigma. Or of the conundrum: each solution is provisory, defeating meaning or order like a pun.

The father of combinatorics, Leibnitz, suggested that situation would follow number in games, finally to be displaced by games involving motion. Tower Beck, 1979, addresses just such an issue of how we perceive shape through space in time. We begin at the beginning: a clear, symmetrical, “Minimal” front echoed in the barely relieved surface of its wood. As we move around, our visual angle shifts, and so, too, do those deceptively solid relations. Ferrara gets the maximum interaction of shapes from a simple device. Where she moves “base” in toward “tower” at different angles or heights, the contour lines elide into other lines at irregular paces or intervals. Our motion through space traces a trajectory through shape, as the form seems to rotate eccentrically around its vertical axis—to tilt forward, halt, shift, edge sideways and sway. Endless analysis attends such ungraspable structure, which can never be “held” conceptually because it is always changing visually, both in its own relations and in its relation to the mobile eye.

Tower Beck, though, is an early work from 1979—a fairly simple “complex” form. Ferrara’s most recent work displays a quasi-infinity of possible arrangements resulting from the interplay of external shape, surface pattern, illumination and angle of view. Some of these are “real,” and can be measured: there are certain forms; there are certain proportions; there are triangles that link up with other triangles, related by measure or scale and shape. Ajut, 1979, for example, may be Ferrara’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie, so complex are its patterns of gray, pink, tan, beige or bluish-shaded blocks. Yet the others can only be experienced, as they are virtual and emerge from transactions in which relations meet relativism, dislocating systems and turning structures into phantasmagoria.

In Antrid, for example, increments of mass are added, adjusted and played against each other to compose the basic form. A blocklike base is followed by a pyramidal section, then narrowed into a third tier which is then extended, abruptly, into the spindly, topmost tower. The surfaces are inflected by linear pattern, arranged into broad, matte areas or stacked into slatted lattices, as layers of wood and empty space are interchanged. But, as in Tower Beck, Ferrara chooses to confute these structural arrangements. The shape both defines and differentiates itself from different views. From the side, the base may be seen to lean at a sharp incline, while the four sections moving from base to top now yield three—base, pyramid, tower. Because space is manipulated like mass, and form subjected to light, there is both harmony and counterpoint between surface and volume, three-dimensional structure and flat design. These sculptural terms, indeed, are seen to fluctuate in function according to lighting and angle of view. Thus a pyramid providing mass and support abuts a triangle—a flat, slatted design—which, if read from another angle, fans out into a volume enveloping interior space. These visual transformations are pronounced in Antrid, and particularly addressed, but they are common to Ajut, Ribat, or a host of other objects.

In a similar way, light declares and effaces form, here dematerializing it to line while elsewhere it reads as solid substance, weighty mass. Planes dislocate planar readings, initiate new rhythms in the light and seem to fracture any potential gestalt. Important ambiguities are introduced by long, narrow shafts which confuse the estimation of distance—of actual object breadth—both through their deep perspectives and through their contrast to external light. In its evanescence, light also cues us to the temporal perception of shape. A small stairway set within a minute niche may be read, one moment, as a darkling bar of narrow breadth, while a disparate light, or different distance, yields stepped volumetric form; in shadow, sighted from an angle, it can imply endlessness, or perhaps infinite progression, while in light it bespeaks finite arrangement, modular blocks.

Structure, then, becomes a function both of its external, particular conditions and of the general principles of perception. Most important to this visual relativism are the triangular relations that Ferrara inscribes on her surfaces, both virtual and real. They appear in different sizes, are set to different scales and occupy very many levels between actual and imagined. Thus, on the “real” level, the face of Ribat offers two slatted triangles, its sides four; from a skewed angle, one can make out six, each differently graded by light. Such given shapes can be visually added to other forms; angles connect up with other angles; and one tends to elaborate relations of points with lines, forming further triangles still. Tight structure leads to visual metamorphosis, as proportions relate and imbricate separate elements. A triangle may split into two smaller forms, separated by a narrow vertical beam; or it may bind itself visually to a third, related triangle to compose a larger shape. Different visual angles yield distinct forms—all available as elements—and so many scales and progressions exist that one tends to link inner form to exterior space, to sketch airy rectangles and triangles and to pose wholly hypothetical relations. By this means external space becomes animated by virtual form. And inner space as well: the changing scales developed through the viewer’s motion provide a panoply of potential relations. As one’s angle shifts, so do the scales, as forms recede or emerge from protruding forms, shortening bases or extending lines that are related to changing lines. Since new forms become available for further combinations, the arrangements are literally endless.

In raising the analogy with games I have kept one obvious term latent. Ferrara’s work illuminates an old word, much maligned in sculpture, and restores it to its original meaning. Illusion, from il-ludere, the Latin for “to play against,” implies affirmation and denial, the assertion of certain “givens” so that they may be challenged on other planes.7 It plays, sculpturally, on a central paradox, opposing the spatial existence of material to its temporal consequences, and suggests structures, relations and proportions that may be exploited for wholly visual ends. It mediates between the internal self-definition of sculpture as a system of formal relations and its corresponding external definition as a perceptual object, related to its viewer. These sculptures are not about fictions, or specifically, phenomenology; they are about the way they infuse all sculptural experience, turning obdurate “thingness” into visual form.

That sense of sculpture as a visual object, illusory in cast, relational in essence, informs a recent series of large-scale projects. Unlike much sited sculpture, they do not interpret their surrounding terrain; the eye, rather, interprets them. Dayton Arch, 1978, for example, inhabits a field in which the body circumambulates form with total, wide-eyed attention. Pi-Red, 1979, may be scaled to a room, and physically contained, but it is involved in its own dynamics as the body moves through the perceptual surround. Similarly, these and other works have little in common with architectural sculpture. They neither explore internal space, nor comment on habitation, nor allude to architectural forms. Illusion, rather than allusion, is accentuated: Ferrara’s pyramids, towers and arches are entirely abstract shapes, plastically eloquent forms.

But A Tower and a Bridge for Castle Clinton, 1979, seems, in its title, to contradict much of what already has been said. Constructed for installation in New York’s Battery Park,8 it answers a somewhat conventional, site-specific request: to comment on the historical or physical nature of the restored 19th-century fortress, Castle Clinton. Ferrara answered absence with presence, building a bridge and a tower to complete, conceptually, the open-air circular “castle.” But is this edifice or formal artifice? Architectural analogue or pretext for visual play? The towering and bridgelike structures yield the familiar roundelay of repeating and related forms. Lines link up with other lines; angles lean toward triangular arrangements; and one can visually “climb” certain elements to “bridge” still others. Stepped forms flatten into lines, or swing into curves, while a walk through the arches leads into light boxes, trading smooth and slatted sides. Castle Clinton is surely sculpture—an object of a highly illusory sort—but whatever it is beyond that depends ultimately on whatever way you look at it.

Kate Linker



1. Robert Berlind, “Jackie Ferrara at Max Protech,” Art in America, March–April 1979, p. 153. Although I contest Berlind’s statement on the architectural evocations, his discussion of the contradictions and contradictory tensions in Ferrara’s sculpture—such as the dialectic between vision and concept—is perhaps the best analysis so far of how the objects actually “work.”

2. Conversation with the author, August 1979.

3. For a biographical and psychological interpretation of Ferrara’s work, see Robert Pincus-Witten, Postminimalism, New York, 1977.

4. Ferrara’s work brings up many problems in the current vision of an architecturally based sculptural movement. One is that objects which are shaped like buildings or specific architectural forms may actually focus on quite basic, “formal,” classical sculptural issues. Many wholly different esthetics (as well as objects and sited works) hence become assembled and confused under an umbrella term. Another is that of the viewer’s response’ does the fact that he/she sees evocations of buildings in certain arrangements of forms mean that they are really there for the artist? And a third, that of the referent. Objects which draw inspiration, directly or indirectly, from architectural forms may so transmute them into their own internal systems that they no longer refer to the original sources. Robert Smithson’s essay “Ultramoderne” and Sol LeWitt’s on “Ziggurats” (which notes their “intricate geometric patterns” and “massive design”) are illuminating in this respect.

5. Berlind, “Jackie Ferrara.”

6. Superficial analogies obtain between Ferrara’s early sculptures and, for example, Smithson’s 1966 pyramidal progressions, Bochner’s systemically derived woodblock photographs, Dan Graham’s photographs of steps, as well as his Ziggurat, and Carl Andre’s early wooden works.

7. For a brief discussion of this concept in painting, see Dore Ashton, A Reading of Modern Art, Cleveland, 1969, p. 92.

8. September 29–October 30, 1979, part of “Castle Clinton: Interpretations ’79,” sponsored by the National Park Service and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and curated by Jean E. Feinberg.