Capturing city life as it was, with an eye toward preservation and a style that brings the work to life.
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As a fourth-generation New Yorker, hyperrealist painter Max Ferguson has a deep familiarity with the city that comes through in the photolike quality of his work. The everyday scenes he depicts don’t idealize the city or turn it into an abstraction; they feel like vivid memories, those seemingly insignificant slices of life that, for whatever reason, take on permanence in our minds. “It’s not so much about looking nostalgically to the past but rather looking to the future and trying to preserve things, like the last of the hand-rolled-bagel shops,” Ferguson says.
In his 13th solo show, Ferguson applies that method to another subject: his father. The exhibition, titled “Painting My Father,” will be held at the Hebrew Union College Museum, on West Fourth Street, and comprises 30 paintings—from an early scene at the 28th Street subway station in 1982 to a striking image of his father in the hospital before his death. The official opening is today, May 8, and the show runs through June 29.
How do these paintings preserve the memory of your father?
The paintings I did of my dad fall into different categories. Some are very much who he was, like when he’s reading a newspaper or taking the subway; others cast him in a role, like the one at the movie theater; and some are somewhat wishful thinking, like one of him playing pool. We never played pool together. Sometimes I would stage him, like in the Katz’s Deli painting, and other times I happened to see him do something that triggered a painting.
Is there a process that allows you to achieve this lifelike quality?
Every painting is a little different. My preference is to work from life, but that is usually not possible. Typically I take photographic studies, which act as a starting point. I do drawings as sketches from them; I move things around or adjust the colors. Sometimes, like in the painting of my wife in Shoe Repair Shop, I added the shelf on the wall and the scenery out the window. Then, when I feel I’ve gotten the drawing down, I transfer the lines to the panel and then build up with oil paint.
Do you scout the city for locations or just file them away when you see them?
Here’s a little window into my m.o.: For about 15 years, I’d wanted to do a painting of a laundromat, and I couldn’t find the right one. Then I was on my way to the Steinway factory in Queens, because I wanted to paint it, and I came across this one. In my mind, it was the way a laundromat “should” look—the checkered floor, the woman taking out her clothing. The painting captures daily life and the idea of making the ordinary extraordinary.
Does your work evolve with the city?
To a degree. I am always consciously zeroing in on the older aspects of the city that I sense are an endangered species. Around 1982, they stopped making Checker cabs, for instance, so I captured those. I started painting Coney Island in the early ’90s, and when I went back 10 years later I discovered that most of the things I’d painted were gone. Many, many things have fallen victim to the wrecking ball, or been renovated beyond recognition. It’s gratifying to know I captured them while they still existed.
Which painting are you most attached to? My Father in Katz’s; it was the first painting I did of my father after he died. Also, Katz’s Delicatessen is one of the last holdouts from the old Jewish Lower East Side. Almost everything else from that time has evaporated.
What are you working on next?
I have a big list of things to paint. Some of the places on my current list are Peter Luger’s steakhouse in Brooklyn; Katz’s Deli, even though I’ve already done it about five times; the New York City library; Argosy, which is a nice old bookstore on East 59th Street; and a bowling alley. Before I start the next painting, I always ask myself this morbid question: If I could do one more painting before I die, which would it be? And that is the next one I’ll do.