Rafael Ferrer in Lancaster

Measuring an artist’s life–Rafael Ferrer

Rafael Ferrer was Philadelphia-based for many years, teaching at University of the Arts and University of Pennsylvania and creating what he created. The traces of his sojourn here have left traces–with a beloved public sculpture El Gran Teatro de la Luna restored earlier this year to North Philadelphia’s Fairhill Square Park, and also in the memories of his students and friends.

Rafael Ferrer’s 1982 sculpture El Gran Teatro de la Luna, restored and returned to 4th and Lehigh atop a trellis above a performance stage. Photo © Brooke Baldwin.

A survey of 150 of his works on paper to date, curated by Edith Newhall who writes about Contemporary Art for the Inquirer, is currently at the Lancaster Museum of Art until Nov. 11, 2012. I am unable to get to Lancaster, but fortunately a catalog accompanies the exhibit.


I was particularly interested in Ferrer because he and I have the extraordinary Frank Bramblett in common–so it is in art as in life that our friends radiate in and out via concentric circles, bringing along our fellows’ passions and loves for us to discover and savor.

Rafael Ferrer, Untitled, 1974

The Puerto Rico-born Ferrer already had an international reputation when Newhall first encountered him. She was a student when he came to speak at her class at Moore College; Newhall was instantly star struck. Her introductory essay for the catalog is worth its weight in gold, delivering a picture of the artist as a human being along with a picture of the artist as a maker of art. She gives a sense of a large-spirited man, a charmer who gathered people around him.

If you don’t know of Ferrer or his work, his resume dazzles with a steady, career-long series of blue-chip gallery and national and international museum shows. He had a retrospective at El Museo del Barrio in 2010 and early in his career in 1971 had solo shows at the Whitney and at the ICA here. He has had numerous awards–two from the National Endowment for the Arts, and from Pew, Guggenheim and more. He taught all around the country, including at RISD and San Francisco Art Institute, and in Philadelphia made the rounds of Tyler, Penn and University of the Arts (then PCA).


Newhall’s warm, lucid introduction is in strong contrast to gold-plated art critic Barry Schwabsky’s art-speak essay that with obfuscatory jargon and feints is luke-warm. As a contrast, it is worth noting here that Schwabsky also did a wonderful hour-long interview with Ferrer that can be found on YouTube.

The catalog gives a sense of an artist’s progression through time, absorbing and redefining the visual culture around him, until he’s off on his own little island of art-making, swimming in color and language. Politics are just below the surface along with love, sensuality and hatred (oh, lordy, he attacks Yale, Alex Katz, and Chuck Close with astonishing vitriol). The work that shines through in the catalog is highly personal and emotion-filled. I especially adored the maps that suggest Puerto Rico and some of the poster-like works filled with words and images. I would love to see them in person.

Rafael Ferrer, A Play in Six Parts V, 2007

The catalog ends with a brief personal memoir/appreciation by Ferrer’s friend and fellow artist Bill Beckley, astonishingly youthful in its approach.

The show includes notebook sketches from the 1950s as well as prints, drawings, collages and watercolors. I would have liked more information about the images–in some cases the titles and dates, and in most cases the media and scale.

Rafael Ferrer, Works on Paper: A Survey, 1952-2012
Call the Lancaster Museum at 717 394 3497 to order a catalog, which is $20 plus $8 shipping and handling.