Frieze New York

May 13 – May 17, 2015

Rafael Ferrer at David Castillo Gallery
Frieze New York, May 13-17, 2015
By Deborah Cullen, Director & Chief Curator, Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, New York, NY


Rafael Ferrer (b. 1933, Santurce, Puerto Rico) explored drawing and painting in college in the early 1950s. He attended Syracuse University for two years, and then enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. There, he encountered exiled European Surrealists, including Spanish artist Eugenio Fernández Granell. During his first trip to Europe in 1954, he met Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, and others. Ferrer built his early reputation in Puerto Rico with two- and three-dimensional assemblages. After his permanent relocation to the United States in 1966, he was recognized for his art actions, installations, and complex environments. However, by 1979 he returned to painting, drawing, and collage. These continue to be his primary forms of expression today.


By the late 1970s, after a long, arid period of Minimalism, figurative painting was again receiving serious critical attention. Neo-Expressionism was an antidote to the cold, cerebral, and non-expressive facture of Conceptualism. The new style combined the Abstract Expressionist’s scale and gesture with Pop Art’s insouciance. As well, it incorporated an interest in street forms: punk expression, graffiti style, and comic book iconography.


Ferrer’s work was included among the “New Image” painters in important exhibitions and collections. In New York magazine, Kay Larson called him “American art’s most notable Caribbean exile…”[i] when reviewing his 1983 mid-career retrospective, Impassioned Rhythms, organized by the Laguna Gloria Museum, Austin, TX and presented at El Museo del Barrio, New York. Critic Jerry Saltz included Ferrer in his list of the best “American” painters of this time.[ii] However, in distinction to the global figurative painting movements—whether American New Image, Italian transavanguardia, or German Neo-Expressionism—Ferrer’s work focused on distinct subjects and scenes in the contemporary reality of the Caribbean.


Sueño, 1983 (oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches), is an emblematic work from this period. Ferrer painted a number of erotic scenes featuring women in tropical locales. His contemporaries, such as Eric Fischl and David Salle, were also crafting perplexing narratives with striking nudes, but Ferrer evoked the race and class divides of Latino culture with which he was familiar. His works combined imagery culled from life as well as pornographic magazines, and his uneasy compositions included vivid, larger-than-life black and white women that often overshadowed tiny, darker men and children.


From 1985 until 1996, Ferrer spent part of each year on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. There, he rapidly developed and refined his painterly style, voraciously producing both portraits and large-scale, multi-figure compositions. Works including Conquista de la Soledad, 1990-91 (oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches) and Narciso: El Ecco de la Mañana, 1992 (oil on canvas, 50 x 72 inches) are prime examples of his ambitious, ambiguous work from this period. Images against verdant backgrounds are composed by awkward, charged characters. The humble structures and modest accouterments signal centuries of conflict and oppression. Figurative distortions, akin to Philip Guston and Leon Golub, reveal the disempowered status of these victims of a larger, failed politic.


Dappled sunlight, veiny shadows, and Ferrer’s tour-de-force mark-making draws viewers into taut scenes. In the New York Times, Michael Brenson noted “the heavy sense of the importance of the unspoken” in Ferrer’s work.[iii] Carter Ratcliff linked Ferrer’s work to his particular, verdant island imaginary. “(T)he tropics, with their rich variety of biological and geographical phenomena, had showed him, early on, that nature is manifold. The ‘tropicality’ of Ferrer’s imagination leads him to see in ordinary things the power to symbolize the world’s inexhaustible multiplicity,” Ratcliff wrote.[iv] The environment nearly swallows the figures, but they anchor the eye, keeping nature just barely at bay.


Ferrer’s departure from the Dominican Republic instigated another shift, away from the Caribbean world that had preoccupied him for a decade. His new group of paintings was done in a deeper, interior, northern palette. By 1999, he relocated to Greenport on the North Fork of Long Island. While some works, such as the uncertain ground of Teatro (Shell Sea), 1998-99 (oil on canvas, 72 x 50 inches) conjures the incident-filled grounds of the Dominican period in the colors of New York. However, it also refers to an empty cock-fighting ring or an abandoned stage.


In the late 1990s, Ferrer initiated a series that explored the visual worlds of artists he had long admired, including Alberto Giacometti, Giorgio Morandi, David Smith, and Lam. He returned to his roots in 20th-century Modernism in these darker, complex studio compositions. In works such as Virgin Isle, 1998-99 (oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches) and Solitude, 1998-99 (oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches), Ferrer creates the inner sanctums where artists grapple with their creations: their cluttered studios.


His homages to these artists—much like earlier works he had done inserting himself into images by Francisco Oller or Vincent Van Gogh—signaled that this, too, was his history. All of Western art was available for him as an artistic legacy. These works imagine the space and visual language of the artists Ferrer admires. They also acknowledge that he is an older, sophisticated artist who can understand their struggles and accomplishments. Lyrically beautiful paintings, they declare a sure hand. As well, they reveal the aggressive joy and humanist passion in Rafael Ferrer’s prolific image-making.


[i] Kay Larson, “Caribbean Visions,” New York, June 20, 1983, 80.

[ii] Jerry Saltz, “Snapshot: American Art 1980–1989,” American Art of the 80s (Trento: Palazzo delle Albere, 1991).

[iii] Michael Brenson, “Ferrer’s Caribbean World of Sensuality and Mystery,” New York Times, November 10, 1989.  

[iv] Carter Ratcliff, “Rafael Ferrer in the Tropical Sublime,” reprised from a 1973 essay. Retro/Active: The Work of Rafael Ferrer, ed. Deborah Cullen (New York: El Museo del Barrio, 2010), 78.

Rafael Ferrer