León Ferrari, Fotógrafo @Josée Bienvenu

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made circa 1979. Physical sizes range from roughly 4×3 to 17×14 (or reverse) and all of the prints are unique. The show was curated by Alexis Fabry in collaboration with The Fundacion Agusto y León Ferrari. (Installation and close up shots below.)

Comments/Context: While León Ferrari’s name might come up quite quickly when putting together a list of important 20th century artists from Latin America, photography would not be the first medium associated with his avant-garde artistic success; in fact, it might be the seventh or eighth most important medium in his career, with sculpture, drawing, etching, painting, collage, installation, and other forms being more likely candidates for recognition. But this small trove of black and white images he took of his own sculptures in the late 1970s might change that hierarchy, as they demonstrate a nuanced understanding of photographic seeing as applied to three dimensional objects.

While photography and sculpture have long been intertwined (see the MoMA show The Original Copy from 2010, reviewed here), the list of sculptors who have made great photographs of their own work is pretty short. Some might argue that it has only one important name – Constantin Brancusi. Others might give credit to David Smith, or fudge a bit an include Steichen’s and Druet’s haunting images of Rodin’s work, but beyond these, the well runs pretty dry. The reality is that few sculptors have been able to thoughtfully exploit the visual transition to the flatness of photography.

This fact is part of what makes Ferrari’s rediscovered images so compelling. They capture the complexity, energy, and density of his original iron rod assemblages, but do so with a subtle understanding of how the linear forms would be translated into a two dimensional matrix, and how light and negative space work to different effect in a photograph. Like Brancusi’s photographs, they systematically reinterpret the sculptures, creating new artworks that stand on their own, separate from the originals.

Seen in a white cube gallery setting, Ferrari’s sculptures have boundaries, the delicate density of dark lines captured inside a three dimensional rectangle or floating orb; many are mostly air, with impossibly complicated architectural scaffolding floating within the geometric edges. In his photographs, however, that sense of limit is removed. Cropped down to tight, up close, edgeless views of the intricacies of iron, they become layered linear abstractions like drawings, the rods inverted into frenetic silvery white lines of light against dark featureless backgrounds.

The surprising diversity of Ferrari’s sculptural frameworks comes through clearly in these pictures. There are images made up predominantly of verticals or horizontals, or careful woven stripes and patterns. Just a slight change in camera angle creates the sense of three dimensional space, of architectural depth receding into the back of the image, like floors in a cut away skyscraper. Other pictures eschew strict regimented order for active movement and organized chaos, with lines slashing in all directions or becoming a tangle of intersections like a bird’s nest. And flares of light are bounced off the metallic rods, creating shines and contrasts that Ferrari uses to give energy to the images. Each photographic composition has been carefully constructed, the editing process highlighting specific techniques and forms that celebrate the essence of Ferrari’s aesthetic.

I like the way that these photographs turn something that is inherently self contained into something that feels all-over and enveloping; the images bring us inside the sculptures, where the abstractions become more elemental. Those that enjoy Niko Luoma’s contemporary light abstractions will find an affinity of thinking here. Up close, Ferrari’s abstractions jangle with intense, overlapped energy, uncovering an interior life in these sculptures that only the artist himself could reveal.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $9500 and $20000, based on size and composition. Ferrari’s photographs have little or no secondary market history, so gallery retain remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by MACK Books (here). Spiral-bound hardcover, 18 x 22 cm, 80 pages, with 40 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by Neelika Jayawardane ... Read on.

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