MCA DNA: Rafael Ferrer

Puerto Rican–born artist Rafael Ferrer has worked in a broad range of forms since first emerging as a national and international figure in the late 1960s. During the heyday of avant-garde explorations in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ferrer (who studied with such well-known Surrealist figures as Wifredo Lam and André Breton) was one of the prime instigators of a movement now called process art, which focused on the process of creating rather than on the resulting object. His early installations, featuring ephemeral materials such as leaves, quickly evolved into installations that were more narrative in nature and that included evocative, handcrafted artifacts such as the corrugated steelKayak #2: Norte (1973). This sculpture is a central feature of the exhibition and acknowledges Ferrer’s birthplace on an island, as well as his many voyages away from his homeland. During this same period, Ferrer also fashioned maps and flags and began his ongoing series of vibrantly colored, highly imaginative paper bag faces, examples of which are included in the exhibition to contextualize Kayak.

Another major feature of the exhibition is the colorful and powerful cycle of paintings Cien Años de Soledad (One hundred years of solitude) (1982), which illustrate Nobel Prize–winning writer Gabriel García Márquez’s extraordinary novel set in the author’s native Colombia, in the fictional town of Macondo. The founder of Macondo believes his town is really an island and alternates between feelings of isolation and wanderlust, imagining the possibilities beyond the island’s shores—a constant theme in Ferrer’s work. Painted in a direct and willfully naïve style, the Cien Años works are alluring because of their color and immediacy yet unsettling due to scale shifts and depictions of savagery and violence.

The concentration of works by Ferrer in the MCA Collection reflects the museum’s long association with the artist, including the MCA’s presentation of his 1972 solo exhibition, Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), referencing a group of islands off the southern tip of South America named by explorer Ferdinand Magellan. A Flag for the Straits of Magellan (1972), a major work featuring a pennant of fabric on which the artist painted and affixed rawhide, bone, wire, pipe cleaners, and other materials, was a prominent part of this important early exhibition and was created especially for the MCA. In recognition of the MCA’s early support of Ferrer, his longtime friends and collectors Earl and Betsy Millard of St. Louis have given the museum many of the works on display.