Ferren was born in Pendleton, Oregon in 1905, but grew up in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In 1923 he graduated from the Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles, studied art briefly in San Francisco, then apprenticed himself to an Italian stonecutter. In San Francisco during the late 1920's, John Ferren was influenced heavily by Zen Buddhism and Taoism, religions that influenced him to believe that man and nature were spiritually connected, which he tried to express through his art by using vibrant colors and organic forms.
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In 1929 Ferren went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the Académie Colarossi. While in Paris Ferren befriended Hans Hofmann, with whom he attended an exhibition of Matisse paintings which stimulated Ferren's interest in color. This exposure to Matisse's handling of colors, fused with his spiritual beliefs, resulted in Ferren arriving at his mature style. Ferren returned to the United States and had his first-one man exhibition at the Art Center in San Francisco in 1930.
Ferren returned to Paris in 1931 where he stayed until 1938. During this time Ferren developed his mature style in geometrical abstraction. Ferren developed friendships with many of the leading artists working in Paris, including Picasso, Miró, Mondrian, and Hélion. Gertrude Stein commented that John Ferren was considered by the European avant-garde artists in Paris to be the only American on the same level artistically as themselves. Ferren first exhibited in Paris in 1932 at the Galerie Zak. He also exhibited regularly with the Abstraction-Création group. In 1936 Ferren had his first solo exhibition in Paris at Pierre Loeb's Galerie Pierre and had a solo exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. Ferren had two more solo exhibitions with the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1937 and 1938.
In about 1935, Ferren adapted a technique that had been conceived by William Stanley Hayter at his Atelier 17 print studio in Paris which Ferren frequently visited. Hayter was printing etchings on plaster, and Ferren began to do this as well, using color and carving into the lines to give them the appearance of bas-reliefs. In 1938 John Ferren returned to the United States and settled in New York City where he began to associate with Gallatin, Shaw, Morris, and Holty and to attend American Abstract Artists meetings. The Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. held a solo exhibition of Ferren's work in 1940.
In the early 1950's, John Ferren began to use delicate pale washes on raw canvas. Often he used a calligraphy which resembled Chinese writing. Lawrence Cambell wrote of Ferren in ARTNews: "A thread runs through it all: a strong inclination of order and an intuitive feeling for color." This new, broad and brushy method of painting was closely in step with the Abstract Expressionist style that was emerging in New York. During the 1950's Ferren was a member of "The Group," an informal gathering of New York School artists and served as its president in 1955. Ferren had a solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York yearly from 1954 to 1958. Ferren participated in the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh in 1955 and was included in the Guggenheim Museum's Abstract Expressionists and Imagists in 1961.
John Ferren died in Southhampton, New York in 1970.