New York

John Ferren

A.M. Sachs Gallery

John Ferren (1905–1970) was the kind of painter who stood on the sidelines but who nevertheless did seem to be around when something was happening. The A. M. Sachs Gallery has been showing a selection of his works, mostly from the last 20 years of his life. Ferren’s career actually goes back quite a bit further. In fact, his name ought to have a recognized place in the history of transatlantic modernism. He was active in Paris in the ’30s and Gertrude Stein says in Everybody’s Autobiography (1936), “He is the only American painter foreign painters consider as a painter and whose paintings interest them.” If so, why does the name Ferren not ring a bell today? Was he, Everybody’s Autobiography notwithstanding, really “somebody”?

On the basis of these postwar works, I suspect that the explanation for the present-day insignificance of a man who would seem to have been abreast of things both in Paris and then in New York might also account for the very grounds of his appeal to the French when Paris was Where It Was At. You see, Ferren’s works, as heterogeneous as the oeuvre as a whole is, all seem to share a quality of hip reportage. His paintings can be entirely competent but many of them look like well-done hypothetical reconstructions based upon a verbal or theoretical description of the character of some particular contemporary style.

That could be an interesting idea, if it were conscious and deliberate, or maybe even ironical, but I don’t think it was. I do think what Ferren supposed he was doing was genuinely keeping up-to-date. I have the impression that Ferren really mistook his “renditions” for active contributions to the developments in question, and their mastery, unfortunately, does not extend quite that far.

The single very early piece is #20, from 1936, which uses those connected, shallow-curved, armorlike segments which can be found in the early Léger and which were in wide currency by the mid-’30s. From there we jump to the 1950s, where Ferren appears to have felt most at home. Perhaps the best single painting comes from the Abstract Expressionist period, Wyoming (1954). But the influences do seem revealingly systematic, like a progressive clueing-in: Miró in The Cat (1950) and then Hofmann in Morning Light (1952) and The Windows (1958). This last picture is unhappily titled, for the tag “Windows” deflates its prominent pair of Hofmannesque oblong patches of light blue with a referential idea; moreover, one of these patches is impertinently, yet weakly, violated by a couple of swipes of an unpleasantly organic brown.

A small Untitled painting from 1962 is quite interesting. There is an orange rectangular field on a blue ground; nicely plastic dark strokes cluster in the orange area, and some of them jut out into the surrounding ground. Curiously, the piece seems perhaps closer to Tachisme than it does to orthodox New York art.

Peace, from 1965, is an example of the mandorla motif for which Ferren is sometimes remembered, but it is also a type or demonstration, in general, of the hard-edge use of flat, quasi-semiotic designs—like purposeless trademarks—which was current at that time. 1966 brings us to Green Field, an engaging work with a large oblong horizontal and textured field of green “matted” by four intersecting clusters of multicolored stripes. If the handling of these bands, and especially of the little squares where they cross, were more thoughtful we might relate this to recent plaid-like works by Kenneth Noland.

Tear Chalice (what an East Village title), of 1968, centers on a mandorla motif but expands it with an array of echoing and responding symmetrical arcs that suggests the curvaceous linear symmetry of the best Luristan ornaments; the entire composition is treated to a Pop-perky colorism. This painting seems somewhat irresolute: the curving bands cross rather arbitrarily and their actual contours look meant to flow smoothly but are in fact rather bumpy, as if a draftsman had not been careful enough with his French curve or protractor. Double Star, from 1969, has a mandorla at the center and a similar embracing pattern of reversing arcs at either side, but it comes off better than Tear Chalice because the bands are wider and so become shapes on an equal footing with the other forms. It is also better because the two wavering, four-pointed stars from which it takes its title share in an unusually active interplay of positive and negative forms. Even here, however, the work has a tinge of academic summation, of appearing overly typical rather than necessarily secondhand. Perhaps that is because what Ferren is doing in this painting was done more definitively and committedly by Paul Feeley.

Lizzie Borden