New York

John Ferren

Kornblee Gallery

Abandoned since the eclipse of Abstract Expressionism, to which he contributed perhaps its most open and lyrical note, John Ferren continued to be concerned with the problems of a luminous, ebullient and etheric color. At moments this preoccupation with chromatic effects led him into apparently theoretical culs-de-sac but Ferren always countered with a native stress on feeling and mood over intellectual stringency. The vase series established the precedent of a Jungian motif in his work.

In recent years he has been drawn to the Mandorla shape—though in neither of these series are the symbolic or literary implications of the forms of primary importance. Ferren appeals first and perhaps exclusively to the senses. The lentil shape of the Mandorla pictures occasioned two dimensional compositions of vertical channels, parallel curves and rectangular subdivisions. Seemingly the result of a set of exterior, conditioning rules, Ferren was really composing according to the feel, the weight and the sensation of a certain color in a certain place, primarily chromatic saturations against neutral vertical fields. The Mandorla, in short, was only the frame onto which glowing and diaphanous seams could be stretched. In turn, these logically led to Ferren’s present sculptural and scenic concerns. At first one is put off by the tangibility of the works—an experience which diminishes as one gains the proper distance at which they are meant to be viewed and as one’s eyes adjust to the delicate light shifts. Seen in clear daylight, the sculptural units transform back into glowing two-dimensional pictorial episodes. Ferren employs sets of wooden verticals worked flat or angled one against another in symmetrical groups or in looser constellations. Certain faces are painted in brilliant colors, others in blank whites. The white surfaces, of course, are highly reflective and the responsive hues become startlingly aerated—conveying the impression that light has washed out the pigment in the way that water may be said to thin gouache. The effect is eerie and pure, often neon-like and agreeably theatrical. I linger on the chromatic effect of these sculptures since the black and white photograph sabotages the fragility and reticence of these aureolated flushes.

These sculptures must be viewed at a room’s distance to conjure up their maximum luminosities. Close on, the random traces of the artist’s hand, the casual manipulation of the brush, the diffident carpentry, the screw-heads on the angle iron?, etc., tend to undermine the buoyancy of the color. What Ferren’s painterliness testifies to is not so much a defection from the principles of hard edge abstraction—to which he can only superficially be associated—but rather the passionate absorption and extraordinary delight which he doubtless experienced during the fabrication of his color-sculpture—an elation more than amply transferred to the spectator.

To render the simple geometrical forms of an absolutist minimal mode is, by now, a doomed undertaking: cubes, pyramids, triangles, rectangular solids, even of the most erratic proportions are, at this moment, so common an occurrence within the gallery and museum scene as to nullify what had been but two years before a daring option. The challenge of the minimal mode today lies instead in an attempt to revoke the a priori and neo-Platonic irrevocability to which rudimentary forms aspire. This alteration in taste is viable in many quarters and its danger lies in the act itself for to alter an immutable form is in some way to announce that this form is no longer adequate and even maybe, in terms of a young artist’s taste, obsolescent. One need not travel far for a demonstration of this view. In rejecting the received format, Tony Smith, for example (to point to the work of a celebrated figure), ventured into aleatory arrangement, and instead of creating strong forms, he succeeded in vitalizing the floor line in a way entirely related to later Noguchi—though no one rose to say so because of the supposedly discredited Surrealist and literary implications germane to Noguchi’s work. Yet dissatisfaction with pure minimal structure abounds.

Robert Pincus-Witten