Shows by the peripatetic Puerto Rican–born artist Rafael Ferrer have been curiously sparse on the exhibition calendar in recent years, so his recent retrospective—or, as its title would have it, "Retro/Active"—at El Museo del Barrio in New York City was a welcome reminder of the powerful, protean oeuvre he has fashioned in more than half a century of artmaking. Forty years ago his work would have been hard to avoid. In 1969 he participated in three of the signal exhibitions of the new wave of conceptual, postminimal, process-oriented and "antiform" art that would dominate the scene for much of the next decade: "Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form" at the Kunsthalle Bern; "Op Losse Schroeven (Square Pegs in Round Holes)" at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and "Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials" at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The following year Ferrer had a one-man show at New York’s leading gallery, Leo Castelli, and took part in another now-legendary group show, "Information" at the Museum of Modern Art.
Ferrer’s work from those days was not very prominently displayed at El Museo; however, much of it consisted of highly ephemeral installations of unconventional materials—piles of dead leaves and massive blocks of ice were particular favorites. In "Retro/Active" these were represented by means of a wall of small photographs that had been banished to a side room, although it would have been worth the trouble—a lot of trouble, admittedly—to re-create a couple of these ventures into what Carter Ratcliff has called "a medium that was part sculpture, part theater, part guerilla action on the aesthetic front." By contrast, the more conventional paintings and sculptures Ferrer made in the 1950s and early ’60s, when he was still finding his way as an artist, were fully integrated into curator Deborah Cullen’s thematic (rather than chronological) traversal of Ferrer’s career, giving a possibly misleading sense of its overall shape.
Since the ’70s, Ferrer’s work has been strikingly polymorphous, ranging from sculpture and painting to drawing, collage and books. Just as he was associated with process art at the end of the ’60s, around 1980 he started making figurative paintings that seemed to be right in step with the Neo-Expressionism just then on the horizon. Journalists saw this style of painting as a rejection of the avant-garde of the ’70s; but in its crudity, the new painting was yet another attempt to start again from scratch, just as much of the art of the ’70s had been. More than a few of its protagonists, notably Francesco Clemente and David Salle, had, like Ferrer, first essayed the more conceptual aesthetics of the previous decade. I doubt, though, that their paintings would hold up anywhere near as well as Ferrer’s do today. For all the variousness of his efforts, it would be wrong to see Ferrer as an eclectic artist, one whose work lacks coherence or commitment—at least after his years of youthful experimentation, which admittedly lasted longer than is common these days. Born in 1933, he was already in his late 30s by the time he began making the process-oriented installations that can be considered his first mature works.
Along with several new texts, the catalog for "Retro/Active" reprints a long and searching essay by Ratcliff published in the catalog for an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in 1973. What’s remarkable about "Rafael Ferrer in the Tropical Sublime" is how descriptive it still seems today of the thinking behind Ferrer’s work, even of the work made over the subsequent thirty-seven years, much of which bears very little overt resemblance to anything the artist was doing back then. This is testimony, of course, to a critical perspicuity on Ratcliff’s part that practically amounts to prescience, but also to the fact that the multifariousness of Ferrer’s art nonetheless manifests a dogged insistence. He has simply taken as many approaches as possible to a few recurrent themes—or perhaps it would be better to say a few recurrent obsessions.