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Robert Murray
Ferus, 1963
Welded steel
360.8 x 111 x 56 cm
Purchased 1999
Photo: Robert Murray

Born in Vancouver, Robert Murray grew up in Saskatoon before settling in New York in 1960. His career began to flourish in the 1960s and '70s, thanks to the many commissions he received for monumental sculptures in Canada and the United States. Sculpture was then emerging as a major medium of expression for contemporary artists, and the unprecedented growth of abstract monumental sculpture, in particular, was fostered by an expansion of technical means. An emerging generation of sculptors turned increasingly to factory work: the mastery of industrial techniques served both as a source of inspiration and as an end in itself.

Murray produced a first version of this work in wood and iron in the summer of 1963, during a stay on Lookout Island in Georgian Bay, Ontario - a magnificent location where he now spends his summers. He gave it the title Pointe-au-Baril I. Later in the year, at the suggestion of the American painter Barnett Newman, with whom he had developed a close friendship, Murray replaced Pointe-au-Baril I with Ferus, a more weatherproof version in red painted steel, made at the Treitel-Gratz factory in New York. Set on a rock facing one end of a string of islands, Ferus gradually became a familial landmark for navigators in the region. An asymmetrical work, it framed the landscape and forced the observer to look at nature in the context of - and literally through - a cultural artefact. The constantly changing scene surrounding and interpenetrating the work determined from moment to moment how it was perceived. Ferus turned out to be a seminal work for Murray, a fertile source to which he would return throughout his career, in particular for two-dimensional pieces, such as the 1986 Trent Banners, commissioned for the Great Hall of Champlain College at Trent University in Peterborough, and the 1991 Trent Series of woodblock prints (NGC).

Duality as a source of dynamic imbalance is a principle of organization that Murray exploits brilliantly. Monochromatic colour plays a unifying role in this scheme, reducing the tensions created by the duality of forms, yet without diminishing the dialogue between parts. Like some painters of his generation, Murray sought to counteract the divisive and fracturing tendencies of Cubism (vestiges of which still persisted in various modes of artistic expression) through his search for unification. He also possesses an innate sense of colour, which he succeeds in wedding irrevocably to his invented forms. Ferus is his first monumental coloured sculpture with a reductive vocabulary. In the larger Canadian context of the early 1960s, Ferus, in its deliberate simplicity, heralds a new sensibility that would come to be called "minimalist." Ferus was part of Murray's first New York exhibition, in 1965, at the highly regarded Betty Parsons Gallery. It had been shown at the Washington Square Gallery in New York in 1964, and then was later exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.