‘New Sculptor’ Ferber Brought Love of Nudes To Curvy Abstracts

Open-form, welded-metal sculpture is now so familiar to the art public that it’s sometimes forgotten how radical and controversial it was among traditionalists when it made its debut in the 1950’s as “The New Sculpture.” For as long as anyone could then remember, the art of sculpture had been defined by the conventions of carving (either stone or wood) and modeling (in wax or clay that could be cast in plaster or bronze). Whether carved or modeled, the principal subject for sculpture was the human figure. Pure abstraction was generally regarded as alien to the sculptural vocation.

All of that changed under the impact of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School. This was the movement that put New York on the map of the international avant-garde, and it was inevitable, perhaps, that aspiring sculptors would want to find a way to participate in a movement that was redefining modernist art in favor of abstraction. This was accomplished by abandoning carving and modeling for the more expansive medium of open-form, welded-metal construction.

The principal progenitor of open-form, welded-metal construction-commonly characterized as “drawing-in-space”-was the Spanish sculptor Julio González (1876-1942), who introduced the direct-metal technique to Picasso. Neither Picasso nor González had any interest in the aesthetics of abstraction; both remained loyal to the figurative tradition. Yet it was the influence of their collaboration on a young American sculptor, David Smith (1906-65) that established the abstractionist aesthetic of “The New Sculpture” as a mainstream convention of American modernism.

One of the American sculptors who took the plunge into the uncharted arena of “The New Sculpture” was the late Herbert Ferber (1906-1991), whose work from the 1970’s is the subject of an exhibition at Knoedler and Company. Ferber had begun his artistic career as a carver of curvaceous female nudes in the style of Maillol, and he retained a partiality for curved forms in his abstract sculpture.

Ferber was born the same year as David Smith, but he outlived Smith by a quarter of a century, and it was in that period that he produced his major work, which combined a Cubist structural syntax with the gestural improvisation of Abstract Expressionism. It’s the work of this period that’s the focus of an exhibition at Knoedler and Company, Grounded/Suspended: Herbert Ferber-Sculpture from the 1970s.

The “Grounded/Suspended” dichotomy refers to the division in Ferber’s work between constructions that are designed to rest on the floor without a pedestal and those that hang on the wall like a painting or relief. The “grounded” constructions tend to be more confrontational, while the “suspended” sculptures afford more of a graphic or pictorial experience. Abstract sculpture tends, in any case, to be harder for the public to respond to than abstract painting, which offers an imaginary space in which to explore the interaction of color and form. Welded-metal abstract sculpture confronts the viewer with an object that refers to nothing but itself. It thus demands of the viewer some understanding of the subtleties involved in transforming rough materials into an experience of aesthetic pleasure.

Ferber’s sculpture has sometimes been described as balletic in form, and this may be true of “grounded” constructions like Calligraph C with Two Arms II (1970) and Two Rings II (1971), though there’s no representation of the human figure in either. The “suspended” constructions-especially Wall Sculpture 2B (1979)-are more architectonic, and bear a closer resemblance to certain modes of abstract painting. In none of Ferber’s constructions did he deviate from his devotion to the Abstract Expressionists who’d changed the art of his time.

Ground/Suspended: Herbert Ferber-Sculpture from the 1970s remains on view at Knoedler and Company, 19 East 70th Street, through May 7.