- Rafael Ferrer by Deborah Cullen
In Puerto Rico, the artist Rafael Ferrer is recognized as a vanguard figure of twentieth-century art. In the US, where he has resided since 1966, he is most known for his “process art” installations. His frequently reproduced 50 Cakes of Ice (1970), installed and photographed in MoMA’s sculpture garden for the Information exhibition that year, remains an iconic work of this period. The work consisted of 50 translucent, melting ice rectangles, some of which toppled in the museum’s fountain, in humorous contrast with Donald Judd’s immutable Untitled 1968, a six-part green structure standing nearby.
This and a few other distant works have long stood for the œuvre of an artist whose creative energy and output have been ongoing since the mid-1950s. Deborah Cullen’s monograph aims to overcome this reductionism. As Chon Noriega declares in the fore-word, the problem at hand is to make sense of an artist who through a wide-ranging [End Page 768] and prolific body of work “embraces contradictory aesthetic tendencies, from conceptualism to figurativism, using the seemingly simple materials at hand … towards divergent aims” (p. ix).
The monograph is a textual elaboration of a well-received 2010 retrospective Retro/Active: The Work of Rafael Ferrer, organized by Cullen herself while she was director of curatorial programs at El Museo del Barrio. The critical silence on Ferrer’s work since the 1980s is largely due to a change in reception. According to Cullen: “there has been a mistaken perception that his trajectory abruptly ruptured, that he transformed himself from cool American post-minimalist to hot Latin magical realist” (p. 1). This conclusion was made by critics who saw the artist’s shift of interest from installation and sculptural experiments toward a “primitivist” aesthetic embodied by tropical paintings.
Through extensive archival research and interviews, Cullen masterfully weaves biography, social and cultural history, and the formal analysis of artworks to contextualize Ferrer’s creative meanderings. Framed by a lucid introduction and a conclusion, the text is organized into five chapters. The first, focusing on the artist’s early life, from 1933 to 1953, sets the stage for a career survey by presenting us with a set of conditions and experiences that shaped Ferrer’s self-determined and independent character. He was the child of a wealthy and respected family in San Juan who sent him to high school in Virginia, where he learned percussion and became a professional musician. He discovered a passion for jazz and Afro-Caribbean rhythms that would never leave him. His musician colleagues introduced him to Modern art masters like Kandinsky and Picasso. Inspired, Ferrer began to paint on his own. His half-brother, the Academy Award-winning actor José Ferrer, was also a self-driven artist who achieved renown.
The following chapters divide Ferrer’s career into four chronological periods. “Earliest Works, 1953–1966” describes Ferrer’s unusual training with Spanish surrealist Eugenio Fernández Granell, exiled during the Franco regime in Puerto Rico. Fernández Granell discouraged Ferrer from pursuing formal art studies and became his mentor, introducing his protégé to Dada and Surrealism. Ferrer’s earliest painting from this period, Figura, 1953, reveals his process of distillation and individuality. The abstract figure modulated in black over a white background recalls at once Wifredo Lam’s sexualized deities in The Jungle, while suggesting, as Cullen notes, a proto-pop logotype from a truck mud flap. During a trip to Paris, Granell introduced Ferrer to André Breton and—most impactful—Lam, with whom Ferrer conversed about Picasso, Cuba, and music.
In his first exhibitions, Ferrer’s overturning of artistic conventions stirred Puerto Rico’s cultural establishment. Recognizing his promise, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture provided him with substantial economic help to find broader artistic horizons elsewhere. “Actions and Improvisational Sculpture, 1966–1969” and “From Installations to Images: 1970−1974” recount in detail the height of Ferrer’s career reception. After settling in Philadelphia, he went from welding scrap metal sculptures to exploring...