This presentation will explore the decades-long artistic and personal dialogue between the two artists, focusing particularly on the Surrealist-inspired, biomorphic forms that they both employed in their work in the 1940s.
Ferber (1906–1991) and Rothko (1903–1970) were important members of the New York School, a loose conglomeration of American artists who pioneered Abstract Expressionism in the years following the Second World War. One of the leading Abstract Expressionist sculptors, Ferber first met Rothko in 1947, shortly after he joined the Betty Parsons Gallery, where Rothko was also showing at the time. Linked by shared beliefs in art and politics, the two quickly became close friends. Both artists professed an abiding interest in classical mythology and the unconscious and sought to explore archetypal and timeless forms in their work of this period. Speaking to these interests in 1947, Rothko characterized art as “an unknown adventure in an unknown space” that must provoke “a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.”1
The thematic and formal similarities between Rothko’s and Ferber’s work were not merely the results of parallel aesthetic tracks, but also stemmed from the direct artistic, philosophical, and personal exchange between the two. In addition to their close friendship and extensive correspondence, Rothko and Ferber also exchanged works with one another, several of which will be on view in this exhibition.
At this time, Rothko was in the midst of what has been called his “decisive decade,” during which he worked through a number of pioneering stylistic periods in rapid succession before arriving at his signature “classic” paintings at the beginning of the 1950s. Perhaps most significant among Rothko’s achievements of the 1940s are his Surrealist paintings of the middle of the decade. These dramatic, mythic tableaux present frieze-like configurations of semi-abstracted figures; two notable examples, Entombment I/The Entombment (1944) and Landscape (1945), will be on view, both of which Ferber selected for his personal collection from Rothko’s studio.
Concurrently, Ferber was creating dynamic, twisting sculptures in lead and bronze. For Ferber, sculpture operated as a kind of primal expression; as he described in a 1947 artist’s statement: “The artist must actually crawl over every square inch of his work, touching, smearing, retouching, licking and spitting, expending himself over the whole thing and forcing it bit by bit to become, in an intimate and immediate way, himself.”2 The works from the 1940s, like Dragon (1947), are built on unresolved structural tensions, with antagonistic biomorphic forms contorting and combining around voids and negative spaces. As described by John B. Ravenal, at this time Ferber “was treating space itself as a more central and visible element. Rather than just emptiness around a mostly solid form, it appears throughout the work in parcels, each with its own contours, volume, and sense of mutability.”3
Another Rothko work from Ferber’s personal collection, No. 6 (1947) is a key example of the artist’s “Multiform” paintings from the year that the two artists met. Rothko’s first fully abstract paintings, the Multiforms represent the crucial fulcrum point of his career, functioning at once as a direct reckoning with his figurative work of the early 1940s and a bridge toward his later classic paintings.
Ferber and Rothko’s fertile dialogue took place not only between the two artists, but also in public presentations of their work. Their work has been—and continues to be—frequently exhibited together, both in a number of contemporaneous and now historically significant group shows, as well as in recent large-scale retrospective studies of the New York School. Most notable among the former is the seminal 1952 exhibition 15 Americans at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, which presented the work of Ferber and Rothko alongside that of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and other artists.
Ferber’s personal dedication to Rothko extended beyond the latter’s untimely death in 1970, as he served as the guardian of Rothko’s daughter, Kate, and assisted directly in placing the artist’s works and the stewardship of the Mark Rothko Foundation with the artist’s children.
This exhibition is organized in collaboration with Waqas Wajahat and the Estate of Herbert Ferber.