Happy Birthday Herbert Ferber (1906-1991)
by Samuel D. Gruber
Today (April 30th) is the birthday of Herbert Ferber, a leading abstract sculptor of the second half of the 20th century, and a pioneer in the introduction of abstract sculptural decoration to synagogue design. Ferber, who was also a practicing dentist for much of his adult life, began his studies as an artist in the late 1920s, and emerged as a member of what became known as the Abstract Expressionist Movement in the mid-1940s. He showed he work at the Betty Parsons and Kootz Galleries.
Though Ferber never considered his synagogue commissions to be among his best or most representative works, they remain among among his best remembered. Ferber's best known Jewish commission is probably still his first - the large animated relief "And the Bush was not Consumed" created for B'nai Israel Synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey in 1951. The work was show at the Jewish Museum in an exhibition in 2010 that also showed work by Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb commissioned for the synagogue. I've spoken of this project before, and wrote of it together with work by Ibram Lassaw in a blogpost here.
Ferber also made notable works for Temple Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1956 and Temple Anshe Chesed, Cleveland, Ohio in 1957. Ferber also had many public commissions in the 1960s, including several at Rutgers University.
Allowing their work to be used in public commissions was hotly debated among the abstract artists of the periods - most of who were outsiders to the art establishment and were frequently reviled by critics and public alike. Ferber spoke these disagreements as part of his long 1968 interview with Irving Sandler conducted for the Archives of American Art.
Oral history interview with Herbert Ferber, 1968 Apr. 22-1969 Jan. 6, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
".... Perhaps because even in those days he [Ad Reinhardt] had a kind of purist idea about it. I know he was very much opposed when I made my first architectural sculpture in 1951 for Percy Goodman for a synagogue. He was very much opposed to the idea that I should do anything as commonplace and public as a sculpture for an architect. Barney Newman, on the other hand, encouraged me. This really sounds ridiculous now but at that time this was really an ethical question that we faced and tried to solve. I think of it as being naive now but it was then a very serious problem. Since we had certainly been rejected by the largest part of the public, and that included the museums and the collectors, we felt considerable antagonism to the outside world as we looked at it. So that when an architect such as Percy Goodman, who was really the first architect in America to face up to the problem of using abstract art on his buildings, when he came along everybody began to discuss it as if it were a questionable thing to do. And various strong sides were taken. I won't forget a cafeteria lunch at which Tomlina and Ad Reinhardt and Barney Newman and Rothko and I, and perhaps Motherwell, were present where Ad said, " You just can't do that kind of thing." and Barney Newman said, "The only way to do it is to get your art out in the public, I mean in the public eye." At any rate, I must admit that my reason for doing it was very simple. The only chance I had to make a large sculpture was for a place that was set aside for it. And I was so enthusiastic about it that although I had been asked and given a fee for making a six-foot sculpture. I made a twelve-foot sculpture for the same price. And what moved me really was the possibility, the chance of making a large sculpture so that it would be give a home and could be seen. I think we all felt at that time that museums were a kind of tomb, that once a think became a museum property it lost a good deal of its vitality and became simply another object in a collection.Later in the interview, Ferber came back to this topic:
[Paul] Mocsanyi was always a kind of a thorn. He attended those forums int he early fifties and one of the things that he couldn't tolerate was when I did the sculpture for the synagogue, which was in 1951. Actually it was commissioned earlier, I think in 1949 or 1950. I spent a year making models and drawings and another year making the sculpture, so I suppose it was about 1949. And when he finally saw the sculpture he said, "How could you as an abstract artist do a sculpture called The Burning Bush?" And I said, "Mocsanyi, it's not called The Burning Bush. That's what it was named." And that's true. I had done and I can prove with drawings that I had done some sculptures quite similar to it motivated, it's true, by plant forms such as cactus and so on and made use of those drawings to make a sculpture which somebody wanted to call The Burning Bush because it was going on a synagogue.