Urban Mysticism (in the Big Apple)

Interview with Max Ferguson

Max Ferguson - My Father at Mount Sinai
Max Ferguson - My Father at Mount Sinai
15 MAR 2017
by

Max Ferguson, to me, achieves a type of ‘urban mysticism’ in many of his paintings through the placing of people in seemingly pristine city environments. Although, as he mentions below, his work is becoming more oriented toward interiors, many of his past figures were often alone in public places, waiting or engaged in a temporary activity. The spotless nature of the setting seemed to better highlight the isolation of the individual in that venue. This technique more forcefully brings out the contrast between the relative permanence of the place (with its impersonal function) and the impermanent and fragile nature of the individual.

Adding a deeper layer to this is the fact that Ferguson has often depicted his father, who died before many of these works were completed, in many of these settings. Before his death Ferguson’s dad had functioned as a type of urban “Everyman” in his son’s work. Perhaps as a defiant gesture born of a deep sense of loss, the father now becomes as permanent as the city, giving each place a more human and humane meaning and impact. The unnaturally anti-septic nature of the subway station or Katz’s deli now takes on another potential meaning, implying the integration of place and remarkable person in an idealized relationship beyond time, the second law of thermodynamics and grime. Moments of transition and everyday activity thus begin to reveal a serenity either approximating or embodying the sacred.

Ferguson is one of the premier ‘realist’ or ‘representational’ painters in the world and is currently represented by Bernarducci Meisel Gallery in Manhattan. He has work in major collections and museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum, London.

Do you consider yourself a ‘photorealist’ – I ask this because I just learned your style was more influenced by Dutch ‘Golden-Age’ painters than the photorealist tradition. How did these Dutch guys impact you? Who in particular?

I do not consider myself a photorealist. The difference between photorealists and my paintings is the difference between having sex and making love. I suppose if I have to be put in any box, it would be “representational artist.”

I spent a very key year in my life in Amsterdam attending an art school there (Gerrit Rietveld Academie). I was initially attracted by their technique (I was a student trying to learn my craft). But another main factor was the subject matter; much more down to earth than Southern European old masters. My love affair and influence of Dutch seventeenth century art continues to this day. My main influences are Vermeer and Gerrit Dou. For me, the ideal artistic marriage would be Vermeer and Hopper.

In an article about you, the author mentions you felt some Dutch painters made everyday objects and everyday life seem sacred. Are you shooting for the sacred… in New York City?

One of my many goals in my work is to make the ordinary, extraordinary, and the mundane, holy. I feel I am most successful if my models appear as though they are at prayer.

Can you talk about the influence of Robert Kaupelis on you at NYU? Were there others who helped you get to where you wanted to be as a painter?

Robert Kaupelis was a wonderful man and patient teacher at NYU. He and I were very different in our visual goals (he was an abstract expressionist), but ultimately we both wanted to be as good artists as we could be in our chosen paths. He inspired me in that direction.

My biggest influence on me as a "teacher" was Ton Leenarts, a Dutch artist whom I got to know via my older brother. It was through him that I ended up in Amsterdam that year (78 - 79) and he somewhat inspired me to consider seriously becoming a professional artist. He also was a strong early influence on my work (emphasis on perpendicularity, painting his father, etc.) I probably would have become an artist without him, but I would have been a different artist. It is impossible to overstate his importance on my work and my life.

Many people have written that you seem to want to capture aspects of New York City that are dying. Is this true? You currently spend a lot of time in Jerusalem. To what extent are you painting scenes from there?

I have always had a hyper sense of carpe diem about me, and an extreme sense of the brevity of life (even from an early age). One aspect of my work (but just one) is the desire to capture elements of New York that I see are disappearing at an amphetamine-fueled rate. It is not so much that I am nostalgically looking backwards, as I am looking to the future to try to preserve these aspects of contemporary life for the future. I divide my time between New York and Jerusalem. I have done a few scenes here, but the vast majority of my work is still New York-themed.

The Crown Heights Riots had a big impact on your life and art?

The Crown Heights riots were a catalyst for me to get more interested in traditional Judaism and come in contact with more religious Jews. My work is essentially autobiographical in nature, so naturally that was reflected in many Jewish-themed imagery. Some of these images were of some things in Crown Heights (a matzo bakery, for example).

How has your work changed since the 80s? What are your big concerns now? Do you see yourself heading in any unexpected directions?

There have always been some consistent elements / themes in my work. These elements slowly evolve. I find my work getting increasingly intimate, almost all interior scenes now. I have long held to the belief that the more personal you get, the more universal you become. As mentioned, my work is essentially autobiographical. Now that I am married with three children, some domestic vs. urban imagery has arisen. Also, employing my children as models, etc.

I didn’t want to ask this, but when I take people to see your work, the first thing they say is, “Is that really a painting? It looks like a giant photo.” Then their next question is: “How long do you think it took this guy to do this?” Sorry for asking.

Time: The oils generally take from 2 – 4 months. My record (hopefully not to be broken) is 8 months. I do find them taking a bit longer lately, as they have gotten rather complex. Size affects the time factor less than one would think.

It has never been my intention that my paintings look like photographs. But I suppose the comparison is inevitable. Risking making a strained analogy, somewhat inevitably, all musicians with an acoustic guitar and harmonica are compared to Bob Dylan...all realistic paintings are compared to photographs.

Any contemporary New York City artists you are really into?

I like Richard Estes and Phyllis Herfield very much.