DescriptionHerbert Ferber (1906-1991)
Homage to Piranesi, 1965
19-1/2 x 12 x 11 inches (49.5 x 30.5 x 27.9 cm)
Incised with signature and date on the base
Placed side-by-side with Adolph Gottlieb's Apaquogue, Herbert Ferber's dynamic, calligraphic Homage to Piranesi asserts his role as the leading sculptor of the Abstract Expressionist generation. His path to these gestural, open forms, called "drawing in space," was somewhat circuitous. Initially Ferber trained to become a dentist; while studying in the late 1920s at the Columbia University Dental School, he took evening classes at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design, piquing his interest in sculpture. During the 1930s, he maintained a dentistry practice in New York City and, in his spare time, made rounded, figurative woodcarvings evoking Romanesque art and the contemporary work of Aristide Maillol and Gaston Lachaise. After seeing the sculpture of Henry Moore at the Curt Valentin Gallery in 1944, Ferber adopted a more massive, monolithic style and first experimented with abstraction in solid masses. From Moore, he also developed a rigorous preliminary drawing technique, for each sculpture making one or two quick concept drawings and then "full-blown wash drawings which generally are set in a vast landscape" (W. Agee, Herbert Ferber: Sculpture, Painting, Drawing: 1945-1980, Houston, 1983, p. 12). Ferber's interest in drawing led him to Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, who in the mid-1940s were engaged in biomorphic Surrealism. Borrowing their curvilinear, whiplash, and spiky forms, Ferber modeled attenuated, hollowed-out bronzes resting on multiple points rather than on a flat base. Resembling praying mantises or tangles of bones and toothy saws, his Surrealist-phase sculptures embraced a new airiness and intricacy.
A major shift occurred in Ferber's work around 1950 as he began to conceive of sculpture as a holistic environment. The art historian William Agee explained, "Dissatisfied with the extreme attenuation his drawing [and sculpture] had reached, he now sought something more solid and substantial within a contained, clearly defined space" (Agee, p. 19). To achieve this goal, Ferber abandoned the interlacing biomorphic forms of Surrealist sculpture in favor of thicker, abstracted curves and geometric shapes welded together-the effect of a giant three-dimensional Chinese character or "calligraph." He then placed these calligraphs within a "space frame" consisting of a roof, platform, and thin side support bars. The space frame simulated the edges of a two-dimensional canvas or piece of paper. Yet by leaving the sides mostly open, Ferber ensured that the interior forms could extend beyond the frame into the viewer's environment.
Indeed, the concept of viewer interaction with sculpture in the round had impacted Ferber on several formative occasions. In 1938 in Florence, he had viewed Donatello's Prophets in their original location in elevated niches on the façade of the Duomo; when he returned to Florence in 1948, the sculptures had been moved to the Museo dell' Duomo, and he was able to walk around them: "In his eyes they had been transformed from a remote image to an intense presence, confirming his belief that one 'must engage space physically to experience its symbolic attributes'" (Agee, p. 21). Similarly, in 1951 while producing a commission for the Congregation B'Nai Israel synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey-a 13 x 8' geometric wall sculpture interpreting the biblical "burning bush"-Ferber "constantly had to crawl in and around it, and he came to feel as if he were actually 'in the painting' as Pollock had referred to the process of making drip pictures" (Ibid., p. 21). With their twisting and thrusting geometric forms projecting beyond the frame at eye level, Ferber's "roof" or "space-frame" sculptures from the 1950s, such as Roofed Sculpture with S Curve II (1954), Sun Wheel (1956), and Calligraph with Sloping Roof, Two Walls II (1957-63), insist upon the viewer's engagement. In this regard, they resemble Abstract Expressionist paintings by Pollock, Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and others, where the large scale and gestural paint create an environment that encompasses the viewer.
In the early 1960s, Ferber's "roof" sculptures evolved into his "cage" sculptures. Wanting to explore further the relationship between curving organic forms and their geometric enclosure, he removed the heavy roof and pedestal from his earlier works, leaving only a thin box frame. The sweeping, turning interior forms now extended in all directions beyond the cage, which simultaneously supported and failed to contain them. His earliest cage series, Homage to Piranesi, was inspired by Giovanni Battista Piranesi's 1745 Carceri d'invenzione, sixteen etchings depicting fantastical subterranean prisons with towers, bridges, and staircases. In these baroque inventions, Piranesi plays with contrasts between light and dark and curved and geometric forms, while evoking in the viewer feelings of claustrophobia and a desire to break free.
The magnificent present lot, Homage to Piranesi, in simulating the effects of Piranesi's etchings, sums up Ferber's mature body of work. Here, welded steel pieces compose a calligraph that is both elegant in its graceful curves and dark patina, and powerful in its rough seams and forceful pushing beyond the bars of the cage. At the same time that the calligraph strains to break out of its geometric confines, its whimsical, opened-up shape invites the viewer into its environment, encouraging interaction from different vantage points. Like Piranesi's Carceri d'invenzione, Ferber's Homage balances shapes, light, and mass--geometric bars versus curvilinear calligraph, dark positive space versus light negative space, and anchored versus free-floating forms. The art historian Stephen Polcari elaborates on how the dualities inherent in Ferber's sculpture signified the very essence of Abstract Expressionism:
"The [Homage to Piranesi] series, for example, exemplifies the nature of this more abstract drama. The cage itself alludes to the idea of the labyrinth, a recurring preoccupation of the culture in his youth. Yet in the contrast between curving edged planes and the flaring (and thus activated) frame, Ferber has established conflicts between openness and enclosure, thickness and thinness, rough edges and smooth surfaces, and organic growth and ratiocinative order-between the various grand dualities of birth and death, creation and destruction, and 'inner' and 'outer' that mark his generation's history. Ferber's Abstract Expressionism translates and transmogrifies those impulses into myth and abstract art (S. Polcari, Herbert Ferber: Calligraph, Emblem of Motion, New York, 2001, p. 12).
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