American abstract painter John Ferren is the only artist who was both an inner-circle member of the Parisian avant garde of the 1930s and the group of New York School artists of the 1940s and 1950s.
Ferren was born in Pendleton, Oregon, and grew up in San Francisco and Los Angeles. As a young man Ferren attended classes at the San Francisco Art School, and then apprenticed with an Italian stonecutter in San Francisco. By 1929 he had saved enough money to travel to Europe. He stayed a short time and returned home, only to travel there once again in 1931, settling in Paris for the next eight years. He studied at the Académie Colorossi, long a popular school with Americans, as well as the Académie Ranson, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and the Sorbonne.
Ferren soon fell in with the group of avant garde artists in Paris, becoming especially close to Piet Mondrian, Jean Hélion, Joan Miró, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, and Pablo Picasso, for whom Ferren helped stretch the canvas for Guernica. During his residence in Paris, Ferren experimented with various modes of abstract painting. He was deeply influenced by the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Mondrian, Robert Delaunay, and especially Hélion, whose curved lines and volumetric forms Ferren sought to adapt to his own work.
Ferren married Laure Ortiz de Zarate, the daughter of a Spanish painter, in 1932, and she introduced him to a number of Spanish modernists active in Paris. This led directly to Ferren’s introduction to, and membership in, the Abstraction-Création group, which was founded in 1931 in opposition to Surrealism. Like the other members of the group, Ferren derided Surrealism’s anachronistic and retrogressive painting techniques, but Ferren did acknowledge the influence of Surrealism’s emphasis on the unconscious on the development of his own work. This dovetailed with Ferren’s own interest in Eastern philosophies, including Zen Buddhism and Taoism, dating from his early years in San Francisco. From these philosophies Ferren came to prize chance and spontaneity in the act of artistic creation.
Ferren visited New York in 1938 to oversee the installation of an exhibition of his work at the prestigious Pierre Matisse Gallery. With war on the horizon and following his divorce from de Zarate, Ferren’s passport was cancelled and he was unable to return to Paris. Ferren fell in with the American Abstract Artists group and got to know its leading members Albert E. Gallatin, George L. K. Morris, Charles Shaw, and Carl Holty. However, he soon distanced himself from this group and during the war years Ferren shifted to academic-style paintings of figures and still lifes.
By the end of the 1940s, Ferren returned to abstraction. He was an early member of The Club, the nucleus of the Abstract Expressionist movement located in an Eighth Street loft. He now painted in bold, colorful style very much in the New York School idiom. By the 1960s he was painting hard-edged color-field abstractions But Ferren never held to any particular standard of abstraction and charted his own, idiosyncratic course, borrowing and adapting freely but casting a skeptical eye on those with rigid adherences to particular modes or styles. Ferren’s wariness of dogmatism allowed him a great deal of freedom and flexibility, but it also cost him a firmer place within the pantheon of post-war abstraction.