Deborah Cullen’s conscientious monograph on Rafael Ferrer charts the career of a major—yet unfamiliar—late-twentieth-century artist. Ferrer collaborated with titans like Robert Morris, yet he himself remains overlooked in most canonical accounts of conceptual, process, and minimalist art history. Cullen’s monograph makes a major contribution to the field by tracing the biography of this important figure, as it simultaneously raises more interpretive questions than it answers.
In 2010, Cullen mounted a large-scale retrospective of Ferrer’s work at New York’s Museo del Barrio, which drew a flurry of critical attention. That show organized Ferrer’s work thematically, a choice Cullen abandoned for chronological organization in the later book. The book divides Ferrer’s career into five periods that roughly correspond to radical shifts in his work, both in material and in approach, from 1953 to the present. Cullen provides a detailed biography of Ferrer, who was raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the 1930s and 1940s, and was sent to the United States for high school by his upper-class family (7). First an accomplished musician, his early forays into art were influenced by surrealism and a close friendship with the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam (21). In the 1950s and early 1960s, Ferrer worked in a variety of media, finding inspiration in the aesthetics of artists in the avantgarde CoBrA movement (26). By the mid-1960s, Ferrer gained success with a transitional group of welded sculptures, which began a stylistic evolution to the conceptual and process-driven works for which he is best known.
Now based in Philadelphia, in the mid- to late 1960s, Ferrer generated his first widely celebrated body of work, which resembles the process art that characterized the New York scene. Ferrer used innovative materials, like cyclone fencing, and staged his first intervention at the Leo Castelli Gallery (showing the artist Cy Twombly at the time) when he dumped bushels of leaves on the gallery floor (38). Castelli was reported to have found the surreptitious installation very beautiful (39). This work began a longstanding engagement with organic materials like leaves, blocks of ice, hay, and grease—work that fit in well with New York’s process art exhibitions. By the 1970s, Ferrer was showing at major venues, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York. [End Page 163]
In the mid- to late 1970s, Cullen reports, Ferrer’s installations “included various elements: faces, maps, kayaks, and sculptural constructions, as well as iconic neon or painted words, and often a tarp or painted tent-like form” (73). His work increasingly included references to the Caribbean, in what some characterized as a “tropicalist” style (75). Ferrer continued to make major paintings during this period, though critics often characterize this work as a digression from his more important conceptualist and performative pieces. His latest works are highly playful, often taking the form of words on small blackboards and installations using words.
Although Cullen carefully chronicles the life of Ferrer, this book falls short of offering any detailed analysis of the works of art. Instead, Cullen has produced a meticulous biography of Rafael Ferrer—a service that will doubtless be invaluable for any future analysis of this monumental figure. Throughout the text, Cullen does obliquely refer to the institutional prejudices that befell the Caribbean artist in both Puerto Rico and the United States, but these mentions never develop into an analysis of any depth. This is particularly lamentable because the book explains neither why Ferrer has been excluded from canons nor how the artist influenced peer participants in the process and conceptual movements, as well as later neo-expressionists.
One area given short shrift is the artist’s recent body of works from the 2000s, in which Ferrer executed small-scale gouache paintings involving text. Like Ferrer’s own turn to neo-expressionism (there is little mention of postmodern painting or pastiche in this book), this set of paintings shows a prescient awareness of the so...