Rafael Ferrer (born 1933 in Santurce, Puerto Rico) is a Puerto Rican artist. He was a 1993 recipient of a Pew Fellowship in the Arts and a 2011 recipient of an Annalee and Barnett Newman Foundation Grant.
From an early age Ferrer traveled between Puerto Rico and the United States, studying in his teens at Staunton Military Academy and then went on to Syracuse University from 1951 to 1953. Since his years at Staunton, he learned to play drums, which began his involvement with Afro-Cuban music. At Syracuse, fellow students introduced him to the world of art through books, causing a failed attempt to register in the Art Department. During his vacations he would travel to New York City, where he would stay with his half-brother, the Academy Award winner actor, José Ferrer, whom he would accompany to Jazz clubs, meeting many of the musicians who were friends of his brother. He also began to regularly visit the Museum of Modern Art, as well as visiting art galleries.
In the fall of 1953 he returned to Puerto Rico and enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, where he spent one year studying with Eugenio Granell, a surrealist painter and writer who was an exile of the Spanish Civil War,. Through this teacher, while on a trip to Europe, he met many of the surrealist group then living in Paris, including its “High Priest” André Breton. His most important early connection was a friendship with the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, who gave and dedicated one of his drawings to the young Ferrer.
In 1955 he moved to New York to work as a musician. He was a professional percussionist until 1960, after which he used it as a means of support while he focused more on his work as an artist in his studio. Since the mid-1960s he has had exhibitions and given lectures and seminars across the US, Europe, and the Caribbean.
Ferrer’s success began in the late 1960s with installations engaging conceptual and process art. These first involved actions, such as his “3 Leaf Pieces” at the Castelli Warehouse and then developed into installations that became progressively more narrative in tone, which included complicated artifacts assembled and fabricated by the artist which inferred voyages. Many of these artifacts became part of recurring themes or series, including this paper bag faces, kayaks and maps, themes that he returns to up to the present. These installations were done at prominent museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Museums Of Contemporary Art in both Philadelphia and Chicago. In the 1980s he became known for his expressionistic paintings of his native Caribbean, works that dealt with the tropic’s under belly, breaking the stereotype of the tourist cliche. These works deal with the marvelous, the rough, the frightful and the beautiful as seen through the eyes of one born of these regions. Painting enabled Ferrer to go back to the privacy of working alone in his studio.
Aside from his continuing interest in sculptures made in the studio, Ferrer has been commissioned to create permanent sculptures, such as “Puerto Rican Sun” featured on Art in America, March 1980 issue. Fabricated by Lippincott out of steel, it was erected in the South Bronx in 1979. The sculpture depicts the two sides of the Caribbean, light and dark, sun and moon. In 1981 he was commissioned by the Fairmount Park Art Association to make a sculpture for the city of Philadelphia. With the fabricator Bob Giza he created an aluminum crown which sat on an existing building featuring cutouts of acrobats and performers and words which spelled out its title or marquee: “El Gran Teatro de la Luna”, (dismantled, restored and reinstalled on a new open arbor-like base by the city in 2012). In 2002 Ferrer was commissioned by the Government of Puerto Rico to create a permanent sculpture for the waterfront of La Parguera, a village on the southern coast where boats depart for the Phosphorescent Bay. Installed in 2004 and titled “El Museo Rodante” (the rolling museum). It comprises 5 bronze sculptures, cast from wooden templates which contain imagery from artist’s throughout history that Ferrer has admired. The five sculptures have since been moved, reinstalled in Old San Juan.
The mediums Ferrer has worked in include sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, and installation art. Ferrer taught at several universities: University of Pennsylvania, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, New York’s School of Visual Arts, New York, The San Francisco Art Institute, and the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Living and working on the North Fork of Long Island since 1999, Ferrer has returned to his earlier influences, the visual world used only to spark the imagination. Along with paintings and a multitude of works on paper, including his ongoing series of paper bag faces, he has developed a new format which enables him to combine his fascination for both images and words: large blackboard installations. He had a major exhibition at El Museo Del Barrio in 2010 titled Retro/Active from June 8 – August 21 and a Survey of Works on Paper at the Lancaster Museum of Art from September 7 – November 11, 2012, both with comprehensive catalogues. He was included in the Guggenheim Museum’s Latin American exhibition “Under the Same Sun” in 2014, for which the museum purchased the 1973 piece ARTFORHUM. He is represented in New York City by the Adam Baumgold Gallery, by the David Castillo Gallery in Miami and Henrique Faria Fine Art in New York who specializes in his early work. A monograph on his work was released in November, 2012 by UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, A Ver Series, distributed by the University of Minnesota Press.