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A turn away from tradition

With the aid of a ruler and graph paper, sculptor Jackie Ferrara can draw a straight line.

And, by her own admission, little else.

In spite of that, in spite of low grades in high school art and never attending art school, she has achieved success as a leading New York artist in the minimalist tradition.

Ferrara now is exhibiting a retrospective of almost 70 works at the Ringling Museum of Art. During her visit to the museum for

the opening, she revealed an attitude as unpretentious as her art. She lacks the soul of an artist, she says. She's too neat. Obsessed with organization, which shows in her work, she admits that her sock drawer is color-coded.

Still, she has managed to saw, hammer and glue a niche for herself as a 20th-century sculptor. She has won many accolades, including two National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Guggenheim grant or an American Institute of Architects award, all for her unique contribution to contemporary art: step-sided ziggurats, Mayan-like monuments, and public decks and daises with built-in benches and mosaics.

Are they contemporary resurrections of ancient architecture? Or glorified fantasies a la Lego?

"I'm not historically minded," says Ferrara. "I don't look in books. I don't travel."

Born in Detroit in 1929, Ferrara did travel _ to New York in 1952, where she has lived ever since. Her work evolved from ceramics to cast bronze to long rope pieces and, in the early 1970s, to wood.

To some extent her rise can be attributed to being in the right place at the right time. When women marched on the Whitney Museum of American Art to protest male domination of its prestigious biennials, the museum responded. Its next show was one-fourth women, including Ferrara.

She knew the right people: minimalist sculptors Robert Smithson, Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre. Minimalist sculpture makes rational, conceptual and impersonal statements concerned with redefining space.

Ferrara had the breaks, but they alone don't compensate for a lack of talent. For Ferrara, talent came as compulsions to create art and to organize. She found satisfaction in geometrical construction.

Her concern is an intuitive formalism expressed in the third dimension. Her work often appears at first glance to be symmetrical. Yet through the subtleties of shifting patterns in color, gaps and shape, she achieves a pleasing design with a built-in balance.

Meticulously she diagrams each piece first on graph paper, not just once but several times. (Diagrams for some works in the show are on the wall nearby.) Once it is perfect, she sets out for the lumberyard.

Dune Seat was inspired by the science fiction classic Dune, in which one oversized character seats himself in a space that is slightly dug out so that he can converse with visitors at eye level.

Semaphore's stacked pine boards form a tower. She avoids calling her works "pyramids" to ward off any reference to the buildings of ancients. Minimalist sculpture is too straightforward for that.

Cross Crete, the first of several long, low sculptures that she classifies as landscape pieces, takes its name from its geometrical shape, a cross, and an idea she had to cast it in concrete. No religious or mythological reference is intended.

The back gallery is filled with scale models and photographs of public artworks: a limestone court at the General Mills Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis; the lobby at the Washington Convention and Trade Center, Seattle; a terrace at the University of California at San Diego. Among her other public projects are works in Atlanta and Orlando. Much of it is financed through "percent for arts" programs that earmark a percentage of construction costs for art.

The exhibition is financed in part by a grant from the Lannan Foundation, Los Angeles, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Organized by the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, it will travel to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.


What: "Jackie Ferrara Sculpture: A Retrospective."

When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, Thursdays 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., through May 31.

Where: Ringling Museum of Art, West Galleries, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota (off U.S. 41).

Cost: $8.50 adults; $7.50 seniors; children 12 and under free. Admission includes entire complex; art museum only is free on Saturday.

Catalog: $19.95 in gift shop.

Information: Call 355-5101 (Sarasota).