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ART MASTER STROKES

Ferber exhibits: A D/FW collaboration
By Ken Barrow |

HERBERT FERBER is not the kind of art-world superstar whose works command enormous prices and the headlines that go with them. Ferber, who at 79 is still at work in New York, has always been considered a peripheral figure, someone attached to the abstract expressionist movement of the late Forties and early Fifties but not one of the movement’s big names. Jackson Pollock and Willem deKooning and even David Smith captured a place in the public imagination; Herbert Ferber did not, with the result that his works have been undervalued and neglected until recently.

Fortunately, history is starting to catch up with Ferber, and he’s at last starting to receive the attention that he is due. And Dallas and Fort Worth are about to catch up with Ferber in a big way. In an unusual show of cooperation and coordination, a Dallas gallery and a Fort Worth museum this month are simultaneously exhibiting the artist’s work.

The Dallas show, at Adams-Middleton Gallery, centers on Ferber’s painting: big, colorful abstractions created for the most part within the past 10 years. The Third Dimension, on exhibit through July 21 at the Fort Worth Art Museum, examines the work of an entire generation of sculptors who were active in New York from 1946 to 1960. The show includes no less than six of Ferber’s sculptures, historically important works that helped define an important period in American art. Either show by itself would be a welcome addition to the cultural calendar. Taken together, they provide local art lovers with an opportunity that is unusual even in New York-the chance to review an artist’s career, not only in depth but breadth.

The artist himself is pleased by the dual exposure. “It was very perceptive of Anita Middleton (owner of Adams-Middleton Gallery) to choose to do the painting show,” he says. Most often it is his sculpture that gets the lion’s share of attention.

From a historical point of view, that is understandable. Ferber was one of the very first American sculptors to abandon figurative work for abstraction. His earliest sculptures, carved in wood in the Thirties, resembled pre-Columbian and African tribal art. But by the Forties, he was making metal sculptures that seemed to capture the energy that marked much of the painting of the day. Spiky and somewhat sinister-looking, each was like a series of sharp jabs, a kind of aerial calligraphy in which the space between forms was as important as the forms themselves. In the Fifties, Ferber experimented with sculptures in which a meandering form in welded steel was contained, caged by a “roof or a “wall.” In 1961, this work led to his first room-sized sculptural environment, an undulating polyvinyl resin form created for New York’s Whitney Museum.

Ferber says that he was very conscious of being a pioneer. “There was a group of about 15 of us altogether,” he says of artists of the late Forties. “We saw each other constantly, met in each other’s homes or in bars and very much discussed our work and the problem of the future of art in America. We were all very well aware of our position.”

They were the post-war generation of American artists, and many of them have become legends. They had all met the giants from Europe who had fled to America during the war years, artists such as Chagall, Mondrian, Duchamp and Ernst, who affected American artists as much by their lifestyle and by the intensity of their commitment to art as by their work. The younger Americans recognized that the tradition of European modernism begun by Picasso was being placed on their shoulders. “But we started a new tradition by enlarging on it,” says Ferber. “We had the advantage of being able to stand on the shoulders of giants, as Newton once said. I think we all felt reverence for those men.”

They were also energized, Ferber says, by the fact that they weren’t given any recognition. They were rebels against traditional ways of making art. Few people understood what they were doing. Museums ignored them. The public scoffed. “Many of us made statements and manifestos at the time. We were very close to each other, very supportive of each other until success began to knock on some people’s doors.”

In the years since, the painters of that era have come off better than the sculptors. Everyone recognizes a Rothko or a Kline or a deKooning or a Pollock-especially a Pollock. Few art lovers, however, have even heard of contemporary sculptors such as Ibran Lassaw or David Hare or Theodore Roszak. Or Herbert Ferber, for that matter. Ferber blames this state of affairs on a small group of critics who wrote widely about abstract expressionism, but who saw it mainly as movement of painters.

It is that kind of one-sidedness that Ferber has avoided in his career. He was a painter and printmaker before he was a sculptor. And from 1958 until 1963 and again from 1973 to the present, the artist has divided his energies between painting and sculpture.

His earliest paintings bear simple, calligraphic shapes that seem to hover in space.

“But I certainly wasn’t trying to translate sculptural problems to canvas,” Ferber has said. What interested him were two issues, both peculiar to painting: One was color and the relationship between colors; the other was the challenge of capturing an image in the elusive medium of paint. Unlike sculptural images, which are the product of days and sometimes months of labor, painted images can appear, change drastically, reappear or disappear altogether within a few minutes.

The paintings from his second “campaign” are even more unlike his sculpture. The forms are simpler but more tenuous, shimmering triangles defined by areas of semitransparent wash. Colors are glowing. In a few works, pieces of the canvas are folded back to give the artist another surface on which to paint. But the intention, he says, is not to create a sculptural surface. In fact, the paintings look so unlike the earlier sculpture that few would guess they are by the same artist. “That’s good,” says Ferber.

As for his most recent sculptures, most are cagelike forms in which metal parts and areas of painted canvas are suspended. The canvas pieces are more like sails suspended from a spar than paintings, the artist says.

“I keep both paintings and sculpture going at the same time,” he says. “Sometimes I will interrupt my sculpture to take out a painting and revise it. A work is never finished until it’s left the studio. But I usually work on a group of paintings, then stop and work on a group of sculptures. Right now I’m working on a group of relief sculptures.”

Does he look forward to an eventual marriage of painting and sculpture in his work? “I don’t know yet. But I don’t think that I will stop painting what are called paintings in favor of sculpture,” he says. “I still enjoy painting. I enjoy using color. I also enjoy solving the problem of the rectangle, which is an entirely different problem from sculpture.

“Obviously there are people like Pollock and Motherwell who are one thing: painters. I always just thought of myself as an artist.”

At a time when younger artists have turned from abstraction back to figuration, Ferber keeps his faith in the post-war generation. He refuses to box himself in, yet he continues to grow, to stretch himself. He is not particularly perturbed to find himself, once again, in the minority. “Don’t forget that really non-representational work, in which the artist has consciously left any figuration out, has had a very short life in terms of the history of art,” he says.



ANITA MIDDLETON was first inspired by the work of Ferber during a business trip to New York in January. While there, she saw one of his large relief works and “was stunned by the color that crept out from other color. It was extremely mysterious. I had never seen a work of art like it before.”

When Middleton investigated other works by Ferber, she found that his two-dimensional work embodied the same mystique and beauty as his three-dimensional “sculpture-painting.” She then began negotiations to bring an exhibit of the artist’s work to Dallas. Subsequently, she learned that the Fort Worth Art Museum was planning a sculpture show of the artists of the New York school, entitled “Third Dimension,” including several of Ferber’s sculptures.

That was the beginning of a joint effortbetween Middleton and Fort Worth museumcurator Diane Upright that culminated in alecture given by Ferber in Fort Worth May18. Middleton sees the concurrent Dallas andFort Worth exhibits as a “bridge between thetwo cities that hopefully is just the beginningof future collaborations.”