New York

John Ferren

A.M. Sachs Gallery

A last note on veterans. In an extraordinary sense, the late John Ferren’s exhibition of paintings from the 1930s greatly assists in enlarging our grasp of the intentions of then emerging American abstraction. John Ferren, who died in 1970, seemed so odd as an Abstract Expressionist; the lyrical responses to the western landscape he knew from birth led to an Expressionist formulation called in the’s0s “Abstract Impressionism.” There followed the chalice and hardedge mandala archetypes, the latter intensified by travels in India, and finally, white abstract constructions luminously reflecting inner seams of color. This seemingly disparate body of work conveys a sense of periodicity and disjunctiveness which these, his earliest mature paintings, put right. As the twig is bent, so is the tree. 

Handsome, lanky, self-effacing, Ferren represented the clean-cut Californian to the expatriate Americans and Europeans in Paris in the 1930s. Certainly it was this kouroslike western air that revived in Gertrude Stein—into whose circle he entered—memories of her own California youth. 

The grisaille plaster intaglio—perhaps the sole work one knew of Ferren from the ’30s, long on exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art—was wisely not included in the present show. Instead, Ferren’s widow selected a body of radiant, high-key oils and pastels, luminously twisting into impossible bucklings, throwing off aureoles of light. They derive impact from the fin shapes of Helion, who so importantly marks the art of the ’30s, and through him back to the analyses of Leger. However, instead of Leger’s rigor and mechanism, Ferren was attracted by movement and chromatics. In this sense, his work reflects mainstream color theories in the period which are traceable to Robert Delaunay and Orphic Cubism, and to the first body of American expatriates, the Synchromists—among the most famous. of them being Stanton MacDonald Wright, also a Californian. 

I’m sure that the Synchromist rainbow is a geophysical symbol of western desert light, so that in a certain sense, Ferren’s paintings of the ’30s mediate the abstract color contributions of the first Synchromist paintings of 1914–15 and the present light and color fascinations of the Southern California school of the ’60s. The technology pertinent, say, to Larry Bell’s aureolated flushes, or the subliminal ombré of the plastic wizards such as Peter Alexander, Fred Eversley, and Dewain Valentine are prefigured in the mechanistic illusion ism of Ferren’s early work—machines for the generation and spinning off of colored light. The model is also informed by the utopian technology of Gabo and Pevsner, and even more so from Moholy-Nagy’s lightspace modulators and Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia mechanisms. 

From all of this one would think that I was rejecting these works. On the contrary, my entire fascination with them comes from the ability to analyze this mix, and to recognize the number of threads that inform the struggle for recognition of American abstraction in the ’30s, 

Robert Pincus-Witten