The titles are blunt and telling: 1 Mile Clothesline; 1 Km Rod; 18 Drain Covers; 9 Ash Cans. These are the materials used to make the paintings. Each results from and embodies a specific task—spraying black enamel through objects that serve as stencils, or making a frottage by passing a black enamel-loaded roller across unprimed canvas lying over a substrate of everyday, utilitarian objects. Gerald Ferguson (1937–2009) practiced a flinty, non-Platonic, anti-idealist sort of Conceptualism, as rooted in the unadorned phenomenal world as any realist representation. The impressions of clothesline, drain covers and other objects that once lay beneath the canvas are palpable and indexical—not so much William Carlos Williams’s “no idea but in things” as “no idea but in doing something with things.” The doing is direct and efficient, its values and references working-class and anti-elitist. Anyone, given instructions, might conceivably have carried out the task.
An untitled work of 1969 takes a plas- terer’s corner bead for a stencil, using it both vertically and horizontally to form a rough, irregular grid. Drop Cloth 008 (2003) inflects another painter’s floor-covering can- vas with a light frottage of parallel lengths of chain, and only hints at Ferguson’s agency. 9 Drain Covers (2006) arranges the circular, striated lead forms three by three in an off-kilter way and includes in- advertent touches of black from the roller, so that the heavy discs seem to joggle.
Ferguson typically made a large number of pieces with each procedure, then edited severely. The work’s sober beauty is partly a result of his visual acuity yet is seemingly achieved despite his conscious intentions. Everywhere, the apparent straightforwardness of his art—one might say its exoteric aspect—is contested. On reflection the paintings evince a dissonance between brusque, workaday execution and nagging quandaries as to the possibility of art’s ever remaining free of the artist’s personal taste and emotion.
Although produced through deliberately confining methods, the paintings invoke diverse associations and affinities: 1 Mile Clothesline, Pollock; 1 Km Rod, De Maria; 9 Ash Cans, Guston’s martial shields, Noland’s circles and, obliquely, the Ashcan School. Duchamp’s principle of visual indif- ference in the readymades has relevance, as does Warhol’s taste for common, low-end stuff (pages of green stamps, supermarket cartons). LeWitt’s practice of beginning with an idea, then simply executing, is also Ferguson’s method.
Ferguson was a renowned teacher at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and a force in Canadian art. The paintings in this exhibition, only the second of his work in New York, ranged from 1968 through 2006. Examples of his sculptural, representational and word-based work have yet to be seen here. A full retrospective (a coup for some astute curator) would reveal an art- ist as distinctive as any of his generation.
Photo: Gerald Ferguson: 18 Drain Covers, 2006, enamel on raw canvas, 62 by 54 inches; at Canada.