Rae Ferren, Artist Was 87

June 29, 1929 - Sept. 6, 2016
Rae Ferren, June 29, 1929 - Sept. 6, 2016

Rae Ferren, whose distinctive impressionistic paintings captured the space and light of the East End, died on Sept. 6 at Southampton Hospital. She was 87 and had been ill for several years with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neurological disorder.

A mainstay of the East Hampton art community for more than 50 years, Ms. Ferren worked for 15 years at Guild Hall as registrar and associate curator before retiring in 1985 to paint full time. During that period, she helped the institution’s director, Enez Whipple, gain accreditation for the museum and championed the work of younger artists of the region, as well as those more established.

Born in Brooklyn on June 29, 1929, to David Tonkel and Rebecca Tonkel, who were not related, she showed talent for drawing at an early age and attended the all-girls Commercial High School in Brooklyn. “In those days it was respectable for girls to study commercial art — illustration, textile design, fashion design, advertising,” she told Robert Long in a 2001 profile in The Star. “But the teachers were much deeper than that. We started with strong drawing and painting fundamentals.”

After an unhappy week at the Parsons School of Design, she enrolled in the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where one of her instructors was John Ferren, an abstract painter who had lived in Europe during the 1930s, where he exhibited with Kandinsky, Miro, and Giacometti. “He worked with Picasso and helped stretch the canvas for ‘Guernica,’ ” according to the Ferrens’ son, Bran.

In 1949, despite an age difference of more than 20 years, the Ferrens married. They lived in a loft on Ninth Street in Greenwich Village, and she was thrust into the milieu of the New York School. Conrad Marca-Relli lived downstairs, Franz Kline upstairs. Milton Resnick and Philip Pavia were among their close friends.

While the Ferrens first visited Springs in 1950, they spent their summers in Los Angeles, where Mr. Ferren had built a house, until relocating to Springs in 1967. They also spent a year in Beirut, from 1963 to 1964. “It was a period of cultural warming-up,” she told Mr. Long. “And the Museum of Modern Art suggested John, in part because he spoke French.”

Throughout their early years together, they developed separate artistic careers, he favoring abstraction, she an impressionistic style inspired by Bonnard, Monet, and Innes. While she painted portraits and still lifes, she is most closely identified with her landscapes.

After her husband died in 1970, Ms. Ferren continued to paint, although her time was also taken up with the management of his estate and gallery exhibitions as well as her job at Guild Hall. She had begun to exhibit in the 1960s and had her first solo exhibition at Gallery East in Amagansett in 1977.

Reviewing that show for Newsday, Malcolm Preston described her painting “Summertime Past”: “It seems to capsulize the spirit of Rae Ferren’s current show. It has about it an aura of wistful nostalgia, something of the shimmer of Impressionism, a rich, sensual surface, and an interesting blend of realism with the emotional and intuitive aspects of Abstract Expressionism.”

Over the course of her career, in addition to dozens of individual exhibitions, Ms. Ferren’s work entered more than 150 private collections and was included in more than 100 invitational group shows.

In addition to her son, she leaves one grandchild. The family lives in Los Angeles and has a house in Springs.

Her son is especially fond of a quotation of his mother’s from Mr. Long’s profile: “We understand art without having to learn anything about it. It’s like great music. You don’t have to study it to get the language, to enjoy it. You feel good looking at art, and it’s a goodness that can’t come from anything else. And you know, I’m so glad to belong to that tribe of people.”

A service was held on Sept. 10 at Green River Cemetery in Springs, where she was buried beside her husband. “Instead of traditional memorial contributions, it would likely have been her wish to please find a young artist and give him or her encouragement and support, to keep his or her artistic flame alive during these often challenging times,” said her son. “Our artists such as Rae Ferren, through their creations, speak to us in novel ways, enrich out world, elevate us, and cause us to think more deeply about ourselves.”

Memorial donations if preferred can be made to CurePSP, 404 5th Avenue, Third Floor, New York 10001