«I believe that our civilization is reaching the most refined degree of barbarism ever recorded in history.» (León Ferrari)
León Ferrari was by far the most blasphemous and polemical artist I ever met. His work, however, comprises much more than just social criticism. León Ferrari was «eterno joven», forever young, a tremendous provocateur, entirely irreverent, never conformist, someone who as a matter of principle challenged all conceivable forms and mechanisms of prevalent powers, analyzed them with his sharp wit, and subsequently took them apart with his artistic means.
Unruly by nature
I visited León Ferrari in the very beginning of my collection activities in his apartment in the center of Buenos Aires—and I was immediately immersed in an incredible, up to then to me unknown world, to be found only in the houses of this city (and, of course, in literature). The ambience wavered between smug and eccentric; everything breathed pride and independence; the memories I retain are of old-fashioned and somber residences.
The artist himself was always very serene and affable—if and when one was finally granted an audience. I was never quite able to assess to what extent his behavior was authentic: Mr. Ferrari came across as overly smart and witty; he liked to act the quirky, slightly cunning old lad. At least I never got beyond that status with him. In addition, he was aware of the true value of his works long before his international success boomed—which he lived to see and enjoy—so it was extremely difficult to wheedle him into selling. The works that I so sorely wanted to have were regularly those that he would simply not sell.
His career as an artist started in the mid-1950s, when León Ferrari was already in his mid-thirties. A first peak of perfection was already achieved in the early 1960s, when he created his exquisite drawings, his écritures: written, poetic images with a playful conceptual disposition and seemingly spontaneous (which they are not); images, which express so much without being legible, and which conceal more than they reveal. Ferrari opened up an entire universe of possibilities—to himself and to us—for engaging with such calligraphic imagery between writing and drawing. His sheets are subtly differentiated and nuanced. At first glance, we see individual lines running across the paper, but the lines cannot be deciphered; they rather converge to overall composed images, which vacillate and vibrate between the poles of utmost discipline and gestural freedom. Essentially related to Art Informel that was prevalent at the same time, Ferrari nevertheless created something very unique, precisely not an «écriture automatique» as Mark Tobey’s, for instance, but rather an entirely new form that oscillated somewhere between pure visuality and codified information. Some of these drawings merge into a nearly spatial dimension. This is absolutely consistent with Ferrari successfully continuing these concepts in his famous delicate wire sculptures.
Architectures of madness
A further important body of his work is formed by his blueprints, which he created during his exile in São Paulo from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. In these architectural and urbanistic plans, Ferrari deals with the absurdity of our political orders and social structures, as well as with the uniformity imposed upon us by an anonymous set of rules and policies. In this context, Ferrari liked to refer to «arquitecturas de la locura», architectures of madness, in which us humans are imprisoned and determined to disappear and drown in the crowd as ant-like, uniform objects.
Ferrari’s art is always interfused with a good deal of humor and irony such as only few of his colleagues possess. This is of course most distinct in his numerous blasphemous and profane works in which he names and shames the sexophobia of the Catholic church. In 1997 Ferrari founded the CIHABAPAI – Club of Impious, Heretics, Apostates, Blasphemers, Atheists, Pagans, Agnostics and Infidels. Also truly delightful are his «relecturas de la Biblia» (rereadings of the Bible) and his cages, in which he lets (live) pigeons gradually cover a reproduction of Michelangelo’s «Last Judgment» from the Sistine Chapel with their shit. In terms of anticlericalism León Ferrari was simply second to none. This also led the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, now Pope Francis, to demand then 84-year-old (!) Ferrari’s 2004 exhibition in Buenos Aires to be closed down on grounds of alleged blasphemy. What a triumph for freedom when the selfsame exhibition soon had to be reopened by order of the court!