Such is the attention-grabbing nature of big exhibitions that it’s easy to overlook—or, worse, dismiss on the basis of size alone—smaller shows featuring only one or two dozen works. But these, too, play an important role in our understanding of art, their modest compass and tighter focus sometimes offering the opportunity of a deeper understanding of the subject than would a more broad-gauge approach. A case in point is “Herbert Ferber: Form into Space” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ferber (1906–91) belonged to the generation of Abstract Expressionists who came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s. In part because of the towering achievements of another member of that group, David Smith, Ferber’s accomplishments, and those of other sculptors of the period, have largely been forgotten. There hasn’t been a major show of this work since the Whitney’s “The Third Dimension: Sculpture of the New York School” in the mid-1980s, and it’s been even longer since we’ve seen a full-blown Ferber retrospective. This show reminds us of what an important sculptor he was, and it argues strongly for the need for another extended presentation of his work.

Organized by Timothy Rub, the museum’s director, the exhibition comprises about twenty sculptures and works on paper and includes two important recent acquisitions, Roofed Sculpture with ‘S’ Curve II (1954) and Homage to Piranesi II(1962). It focuses on a fifteen-year period during which Ferber abandoned the figurative idiom for abstraction, gave up carving and modeling for constructed sculpture, and distilled such diverse influences as the early work of Giacometti, Surrealism generally, and Abstract Expressionism’s mythic content and emphasis on painterly gesture into a distinctive personal language of form that would set American sculpture on a radically new path, that of the installation.

Indeed, one reason this show is such an important event is that it reminds us of Ferber’s generative role in that démarche, a role now largely forgotten. Others, such as Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois, had been thinking along similar lines at the time, but neither one created anything as dynamic or engaging on so many simultaneous sensory levels as did Ferber.

Herbert Ferber, Homage to Piranesi II, 1962–63, Copper and brass.

In 1951, Ferber was commissioned to create a sculpture for the façade of the B’nai Israel Synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey. The result was Burning Bush, a twelve-foot-by-eight-foot relief whose cursive linear forms simultaneously evoke the branches of a tree and the shifting silhouettes and rhythms of a fire. Executing it required Ferber to be physically inside the sculpture, surrounded and enveloped by its forms, and he later said that this experience got him thinking about the possibilities of working at architectural scale so the viewer would be as much a part of the work as the forms themselves. The first manifestation of this pursuit was Sculpture as Environment, an installation created for and shown at the Whitney Museum in 1961, and thus arguably the first “site-specific work” (in the modernist sense) ever made.

The Philadelphia show includes a maquette for this project, a white box about a foot tall, eighteen inches wide, and nine deep, open on one side to reveal an interior filled with pod-like forms that swirl between “ceiling” and “floor,” as well as equally large, attenuated spikes arranged vertically and horizontally to form a loose, organizing armature. What endows this model with its drama is the presence of a tiny figure, no more than an inch tall, that drives home the project’s sense of supermonumental scale and sculptural ambition. (The maquette also suggests that Ferber could have found a satisfying sideline as a theatrical set designer, much as Isamu Noguchi did in his work for Martha Graham beginning in the 1930s.)

For this reason, anyone interested enough in Ferber to see the show owes themselves a visit to the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, roughly equidistant from Manhattan and Philadelphia. There, Environment for Sculpture (as it is now known) has been installed since 1966.

At twelve by eighteen by twenty-four feet, the gallery space is smaller than that suggested by the maquette, yet the impact of the work is every bit as powerful as Ferber’s preliminary effort suggested it could be. Four black, semi-organic linear forms snake, curve, swirl, undulate, and hover in and through the space, coming down from the ceiling and out from the walls to make their way in, through, and across the room. Upon entering, the viewer is immediately—and, even today, despite the fact that this idea is no longer “new,” almost shockingly—caught up in the sculptural event as both witness and participant as he moves around and through it. The experience is not just physical but perceptual. Forms suddenly shoot into view from the periphery, or from somewhere overhead and behind. This makes Environment for Sculpture both sculptural and pictorial, an extension into three dimensions of Abstract Expressionist painting, which sought to absorb the viewer fully with canvases large enough to fill their peripheral vision.

Environment for Sculpture underscores the extent to which Ferber was primarily—preeminently—a sculptor of line. This might sound like a contradiction, or even an impossibility, since line, lacking dimension and being most commonly the province of drawing and painting, would seem to be incompatible with the sculptural impulse, concerned as it is with mass, volume, and the displacement of space. Line has had a role in modernist sculpture, of course, in the “drawing in space” of Picasso and Gonzalez. But Ferber’s ambition was of a different order. He made line alone the sufficient condition of sculptural expression, endowing it with an energy and a range of reference and association unique in sculpture up to that time. And rather than displacing space, Ferber aims, with line, to activate it. Line simultaneously occupies, creates, and energizes space.

Herbert Ferber, Untitled, 1947, Watercolor, ink, and pencil on paper.

The exhibition lucidly tracks this evolving concern. One of the earliest pieces in the show, Sphere (1949), consists, as its title indicates, of a sphere atop a tall rod composed of a network of smaller welded rods—line conceived in the traditional constructivist sense as structure. A little earlier, however, Ferber’s interest in line had made itself felt in Hazardous Encounter II (1947), a Surrealist-derived image of violence and sexuality very much in keeping with the advanced art of the time, its dominant element a long, spiky form with additional spike- or thorn-like forms running down its entire length. Yet its essential character is linear—it is an interlocking group of slender, bone-line forms that read as much in silhouette as in three dimensions. In the 1950s, in works such as Roofed Sculpture with ‘S’ Curve II (1954)—very much a precursor to the maquette for Sculpture as Environment—the curves and spikes alternate, the former reflecting Ferber’s admiration for Chinese calligraphy, the latter suggesting the influence of Giacometti, notably his Cage (1931). (An outlier in this period is the magnificent, five-foot-tall Sun Wheel, 1956, on loan from the Whitney. Within a tall, rectangular cage we make out a starfish form, a helical one representing the sun, accompanied by myriad vegetal and other forms. It strikes one as a cross between Charles Burchfield’s visionary images of nature and an amped-up version of Joan Mirò’s Constellations, all passed through a Surrealist prism and rendered in three dimensions.)

Shorn of the references to nature and sexual violence seen in his previous work, Environment for Sculpture gives us the next phase: line-as-energy, pure form possessed of an expansive, free-floating lyricism combining the grace of Chinese calligraphy with the gestural impetus of Abstract Expressionism. Ferber develops the potential of the sculptural line still further in his Homage to Piranesi series, of which Homage to Piranesi II (1962) is included here. Within a tall, rectangular cage (again suggesting Giacometti’s influence), a half dozen or so copper forms leap, dance, and swirl with such energy that they spill beyond the confines of the cage. Here we have moved beyond line-as-energy, the forms now standing for something more: the traces of physical motion—of a dance movement, say, or of gymnasts arcing fluidly through space. As much as Environment for Sculpture, this series would seem to be an outgrowth of Ferber’s long-ago insight about the link between the physical form of the art object and the physical experience of the sculptor.

Historical circumstances rather than any want of talent are what account for Ferber’s move into the shadows following his death. Although at the end of his career he was making relatively large, floor-bound sculptures that spread horizontally, he was in many respects an outlier, an artist more at home with tabletop sculptures such as those of the Homage to Piranesi series than the monumental forms of a Henry Moore or the totemic presences of a David Smith. And he never followed through on the promise of Environment for Sculpture, ceding that to a younger generation of artists like Robert Grosvenor. Finally, there was the arrival of Pop Art in the early 1960s. When the definition of sculpture shifts from modernist abstraction to ironic riffs on consumer culture—a stack of simulated Brillo boxes or a pile of soft French fries—a voice like Ferber’s cannot possibly make itself heard. A pity, because, as this show makes clear, after Smith, Ferber was the most talented and important American sculptor of the Abstract Expressionist generation.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 1, on page 51
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