- Rafael Ferrer by Deborah Cullen
This monograph by contemporary art specialist Deborah Cullen marks the culmination of an overdue period of recognition for Puerto Rican-born, U.S.-based artist, Rafael Ferrer, productive from the 1950s to the present. The eponymous book, published by the Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC) as part of its series called A Ver: Revisioning Art History, consolidates the efforts of a 2010 exhibition, itself curated by Cullen at the Museo del Barrio in New York. That show, entitled Retro/Active: The Work of Rafael Ferrer, which was also accompanied by an edited volume, first brought broad attention to Ferrer’s life-long and polymorphous creative efforts by highlighting the themes that transcend his shifting materials and seemingly restless stylistic approaches over time.
Cullen’s monograph seems to correct one critique of the Museo del Barrio retrospective—which otherwise received mostly enthusiastic reviews—that its thematic organization obscured the logical evolution of Ferrer’s oeuvre. This is an important concern since until recent interest. The artist had garnered the most attention for his post-minimalist and conceptual installation works of the 1960s and 70s, alongside the likes of Richard Serra and Robert Morris. In 1971, Ferrer even engaged in a public spar on the pages of the contemporary art journal Artforum, which he had also critiqued through his artworks for its dense prose, exclusionary content, and its provincialism. The substance of that revealing exchange may also indirectly elucidate the silence that more generally greeted Ferrer’s changing work in the decades that followed, contributing to a perception that his life work of art-making was marked by confusing ruptures.
Cullen sets out to demonstrate the continuities “that link the earlier, notorious interventions to the later, more commercially successful canvas sequences as well as to his most recent works.” (1-2) In five principal chapters, lavishly illustrated with photographs and artwork, the author details the actual and artistic journeys of Ferrer’s fascinating life, which began in 1933 in a privileged part of cosmopolitan San Juan, where he would return throughout his life—if not in person, then through his music (he played the drums) and artwork. In the 1940s and 50s, he traveled to the U.S. mainland for school, across the continent to Hollywood with his actor-brother José Ferrer, and to Europe with an influential art teacher who would introduce him to the likes of André Breton, Benjamin Péret, and most significantly for the contemplation of Ferrer’s own position in the art world, Cuban-born artist Wifredo Lam. Unafraid to criticize what he saw as the socially retrograde conservatism of the Puerto Rican art world, Ferrer established himself locally as a controversial figure who, in 1966, relocated to the U.S. to engage with the New York art scene.
Cullen walks us through Ferrer’s early fascination with ephemeral materials—especially leaves and blocks of ice—that led to his association with “Process Art” and the inclusion of his installations at the Whitney Museum of American Art, MOMA, and other prestigious art institutions. More complex installations evolved with a broader range of materials in the 1970s, when the artist would also incorporate specific words and images into the spatial compositions. By the 1980s, Ferrer made what would seem like a dramatic shift in style when he adopted expressive figurative painting. He became associated for a time with the New Image artists, however he also was increasingly pigeon-holed as a Latin American artist approximating some kind of “primitivist” perspective—an association he did not welcome. Cullen observes the increasing complexity of his paintings in the 1990s, which beckon the viewer with more subtle, beautiful, and sometimes ambiguous compositions. In his most recent work, language and wordplay are now prominent in compositions; such elements had been more subtly embedded throughout earlier works, but here they more clearly synthesize his foundational interests in the absurd possibilities of Dada and the improvisational syncopation...