Max Ferguson at Crystal Bridges

June 7, 2016

BY KAREN MARTIN
for blood, dirt and angels

BENTONVILLE — Max Ferguson is a painter. The Long Island native is known for hyper-detailed depictions of vanishing scenes in and around New York City. One of his works, titled Time (2006, oil on panel), is part of the permanent collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art here in Bentonville.

Max Ferguson's Time

Max Ferguson’s Time

HIs work is also in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London, New York Public Library, Museum of the City of New York, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, and in the private collections of Martin Scorsese, Edward Asner, and Chris Columbus, among others.

A compact, intense 56-year-old with a rapid-fire approach to public address, he spoke about his work to a rapt audience in the museum’s Great Hall on June 5.

Time is a rumination on who we are and how time progresses,” says Chad Alligood, curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges, who introduced Ferguson.

A serene and contemplative work, Time concerns clocks in what appears to be a cluttered window-lit repair shop on an upper floor of a city building occupied by a pipe-smoking suspender-wearing gentleman whose expression seems to indicate he has great affection for them. Look at the intricate knitted pattern on his cream-colored sweater, the whimsical decoration on his suspenders, the smoke from his pipe, the veins in his aging hands, the various typefaces on the numbers of the clocks that surround him.

“The more personal you get, the more universal you become,” Ferguson, who has a degree in film from New York University, says, adding that he’s trying to “document things that are going to disappear.”

Ferguson’s proccess is to begin with photographic studies that he uses as a starting point.
He then works up his paintings in layers. First monochromatic, and then in color.

According to a story in the New York Daily News, the artist is clinically obsessive-compulsive. “”The thing about oil paint is in theory you could work on one painting for the rest of your life,” he told the newspaper. “So as compulsive as I am, I generally stop myself after three or four layers.”

It takes him two to three months to complete a painting. He includes scrapbook diaries on the backs of each work that describe the pigments used for the convenience of future restorers as well as to provide a diary of the current state of affairs that have taken on lives of their own. As one of the artist’s friends puts it, “The fronts are school; the backs are recess.”

Biggest influences: Dutch 17th-century painters, particularly Vermeer, and Edward Hopper. Models are people he encounters while walking through the city (“When I ask them if I can take their pictures, they either say yes or ‘hell, no’,” he says), along with friends and family members.

“My work is essentially autobiographical,” he says, noting the regular use of his father in works such as Me and My Father (1986, with the pair of them shooting pool) and My Father in Katz’s (2005) where his dad, wearing a padded winter jacket, Velcro-laced trainers, and a flat cap, is eating a sandwich and drinking a soda at New York’s renowned deli; it was painted after his dad died at the age of 93.

It all comes down to communication: “My favorite comments are that ‘your work is about emotions, about empathy,” he says. 

He’s currently working on a piece about the Village Vanguard jazz club on Seventh Avenue in New York. “What it doesn’t say is at its heart. It’s up to you to put it together. It’s never been my intention for my paintings to look like photographs. A lot of photorealism leaves me cold. I use many photographs and my imagination.”


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