JOHN FERREN (1905-1970)
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John Ferren (1905-1970)
Desert Landscape, 1951
Oil on canvas, 50 x 65 inches
John Ferren was born in Pendleton, Oregon, and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from Polytechnic High School in 1923. As a young man, he was briefly employed as an engineer for California Telephone and Telegraph, and then went to work as a producer of plaster sculpture for a toy and giftware company. After a short attendance at an art school in San Francisco, Ferren became an apprentice to an Italian stonecutter, for whom he carved tombstones and made building ornaments. In the mid-1920s, Ferren also created portrait busts, which he exhibited at annual exhibitions in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In San Francisco, Ferren developed the basis for the art he would create throughout the rest of his career. He became interested in Oriental philosophy, and through his friendship with the abstractionist Yun Gee and other members of the Chinese community, he became well acquainted with Zen Buddhism, the I Ching, and Taoism, The abstract boldly coloristic work Ferren would produce in the years to come was informed by the ideas of spontaneity, chance, and unity that were stressed by these Eastern philosophies.
During a year in Europe, Ferren became associated with Hans Hofmann, and attended an exhibition of the art of Matisse with him--this experience influenced Ferren's shift to painting from sculpture and encouraged his fascination with color. By the end of 1931, after a brief return to America, Ferren was back in Europe. He remained for the rest of the decade. Settling in Paris, Ferren attended the Académie Ranson, Académie Colarossi, Académie de la Grande Chamière, and the Sorbonne. He also became an avid participant in the Parisian avant-garde, absorbing the influences of Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Delaunay. He attended gatherings at Gertrude Stein's salon, and Stein wrote of him that, "Ferren ought be a man who is interesting, he is the only American painter foreign painters in Paris consider as a painter and whose paintings interest them. He is young yet and might do . . . that thing called abstract painting." 1 In Paris, Ferren developed a friendship with Picasso, helping him to stretch Guernica, and visiting him after the war.
In 1932, Ferren married Laure Ortiz de Zarate, daughter of a painter, and he soon became involved with a circle of Spanish-speaking artists who resided in Paris. One member of this circle, Torres-Garcia, was probably responsible for introducing Ferren to the Abstraction-Création group, which focused his attention on the aesthetics of the Constructivist movement. By late 1933, Ferren was creating works that evoked Miró's biomorphism, Klee's whimsy, and Kandinsky's painterly energy. By the mid-1930s, Ferren was creating works similar to those of Hélion, in which he relied on a profusion of curvilinear forms that stood out against a neutral ground.
In the wake of the approaching war, and after a divorce, Ferren returned to America. He became associated with for a short time with the American Abstract Artists, and formed friendships with A. E. Gallatin, Charles Shaw, George L. K. Morris, and Carl Holty. However, Ferren abandoned abstract art in the early 1940s to engage in a series of academic figural and still life works. In the late 1940s, after service in the Office of War Information, Ferren began to work in the Abstract Expressionist style, rendering boldly painted, brightly colored canvases. He was an early member of The Club, an informal group that was the nucleus of the New York School in the 1950s. During the next decade, Ferren returned to creating abstract geometric compositions.
Throughout his three decades in New York Ferren taught at the Brooklyn Museum School, Cooper Union, and Queens College. His works are represented in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, among other collections.
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Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography
(New York: Random House, 1937), p. 127.