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A World of His Own

It is one of the many contradictions that swirl around Manny Farber that for those who have read him over the years, or seen his paintings, or heard him talk, he is a mesmerizingly one-of- a-kind, even heroic figure, yet his work is in part an assault on the idea of the isolated, charismatic hero. In a career as a movie critic that lasted over three decades, he refreshingly, humorously, weirdly, and perceptively cut against nearly all our usual expectations of movies, asking us not to take seriously directors with highly personal styles, not to connect deeply with the allure of movie stars, above all not to think of movies as “art.” And in his painting, which for long was abstract and which has been representational since the 1970s, he devised a kind of picture, equally a still life and a view down onto a flat plane, whose very point is that we see a world of little entities, whether toy-size people or candy wrappers, carrots or postcards, which trail off in every direction, creating a terrain of sheer randomness.

On a first glance, however, Farber’s two endeavors don’t seem connected at all. His writing and his painting appear to be aimed at such different audiences that it is common to find people who know Farber for his unorthodox film journalism—writings in the 1940s and 1950s that focused especially on low-budget Hollywood products and, in the 1960s and 1970s, on a host of tough-minded avant-garde filmmakers—but have little real sense that he is a painter. And for many who have encountered his distinctive from-above still lifes in galleries over the years, it is often a surprise to learn that he is a movie critic, let alone one of the few original film theorists we have produced.

As a writer and a visual artist, though, Farber’s aims are connected. Although he doesn’t put it in exactly these words, his goal is an ego-free, centerless, egalitarian realm, where the pleasures of shared, everyday, domestic life are the deepest. It is a realm where the background of a scene in a movie is as engaging as what is in the foreground, where character actors, as much as any lead, come forward in all their idiosyncratic glory, and where climaxes in a film or centralized elements in a painting are overbearing and obvious by definition.

Farber’s opinions could almost be taken for the precepts of a Zen Buddhist, a latter-day Shaker, a member of an anarchist or libertarian party. Yet his voice as a writer and speaker, and even to a degree as a visual artist, belies his communitarian and pacifist thinking. He comes across, rather, as a street-smart, wisecracking, even pugnacious character. There is certainly something becalmed, retiring, even mousy about his values, but as a writer or painter he has been saying, in effect, “No thanks” or “You’re wrong” or “I’ll do it my way” for the many decades he has been in the public eye.

Farber seems to think of himself as first a visual artist; but unlike other artists who wrote, whether Whistler or Sickert, Donald Judd or Fairfield Porter, Farber, one can feel, derives his distinction equally from both his enterprises. His paintings in some ways are but illustrations of ideas which first existed in his movie writing; and the writing has a visionary power that the pictures lack. By the same token, the paintings flesh out the movie criticism, which on its own is short-winded, too often plain cranky, and contrary just to be contrary. Each half of the man is incomplete in itself. Together they form one of the singular careers in American art.

In the past year an engaging retrospective of Farber’s painting made its way from San Diego via Austin to New York, where, in a greatly reduced form, it was displayed at P.S. 1, in Long Island City. It was accompanied by a substantial and profusely illustrated (if bewilderingly designed) catalog, entitled About Face, which helpfully includes the most detailed outline yet of Farber’s slightly zigzag-like life. Unlike many critics, who give the impression that they have merely backed into the job for the moment, Farber has held that there is no higher calling than criticism. When he arrived in New York in 1942, at twenty-five—he was born and grew up in Arizona—it was criticism that he most wanted to do. At times he wrote about art, jazz, and furniture, but movie reviewing gave him the greatest scope for his thinking, and over the next thirty-five years he had stints as a movie critic at, among others, The New Republic, Esquire, The New Leader, Time, The Nation, and Artforum. During these decades, he was evolving into an abstract painter. He became friends with Jackson Pollock and other artists, and, in a 1945 article, he wrote admiringly about Pollock’s painting—this being before the artist discovered his “drip” technique.

Farber’s own painting eventually developed into a kind of fuzzily atmospheric cousin of Pollock’s. It was done on the floor, with Farber pouring his paint on sheets of reinforced paper, which were sometimes quite large and cut into odd shapes. Meanwhile, the artist, who was making little from his writing and less from his painting, supported himself as a carpenter, work he maintains he was never much good at. Then in 1970, apparently on the spur of the moment (as he describes it in a lively and meaty interview with Leah Ollman in the October 2004 Art in America), he decided to leave New York with his wife, the artist Patricia Patterson, and accept a job at the University of California, San Diego, near where he has lived since. He was hired to teach painting and drawing, but within months the university gave him use of an auditorium and he was lecturing on movies and movie criticism, too.

In a few years, Farber also turned away from abstraction, and, in his late fifties, he embarked on the mixtures of still life and landscape for which he has become best known. In his early examples, which have a blond tonality and are somewhat dryly painted, we come across toy animals, toy train tracks, a variety of candy wrappers, doll house furniture (a toilet, a bed), magazines, books open to images of Japanese and Indian erotic art. Then, as the paintings become over the years increasingly hot and lush in color and more darting in their brushwork, Farber’s cast of characters gives way to pots of flowers, slices of melon, peppers, carrots, and leeks. In pictures from many different years, there are postcards and open books showing images from Corot, Piero della Francesca, and other painters, and, too, scraps of paper—sometimes placed sideways, or upside down, and always seeming more “real” than anything else—on which Farber scribbles out thoughts about his work or people on his mind.

Farber isn’t an overpowering painter, and the idea of showing a collage-like array of disparate items which we assume are related to the artist’s life and need to be linked and savored is an overly familiar one. Yet there is a conviction and a quiet beauty to his deliberately impersonal, sketchily abrupt drawing hand. Especially when he works with large sizes—the superb 1981 Roads and Tracks is some seven by five feet—his from-above image becomes to its benefit one of sheer endlessness. This picture is like a person’s desk or the floor of a boy’s bedroom turned into an aerial view. With its background zones of flat strong colors crisscrossed by bands of roadways and toy train tracks, the painting makes one think of a Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park vista where the elegant linear pattern has been nearly obliterated by incidents courtesy of a minaturist working without any thought of an overall design.

Although many of the items in Farber’s earlier crop of pictures—airplanes, animals, postcard images of angels—are related to specific movies, movie references are not what the pictures are about. Farber’s subtlest and most challenging themes are space in itself and how we see, or “read,” what is in a picture. The experience of Farber’s work is a little like reading the letter charts in an eye doctor’s office in that, taking them in, we are aware of ourselves trying to absorb and retain the many details. Looking at the paintings, we balance our expectations of what we will see with what actually is there, which can be subtly different. We eventually perceive, for example, that we are not seeing items that are realistically related to one another. A house from a toy train set seems too big as it is placed next to the toy tracks, a slice of melon too small as it sits by a piece of notepaper. Farber’s overviews aren’t even purely overviews. Some elements—flowers in clay pots, bowls of oatmeal—are, deviously, being seen at angles.

While it is (thankfully) unnecessary, in a given work, to unite the little elements in order to decipher an underlying story, a viewer assumes, and likes knowing, that Farber is painting actual objects. This notion is what makes us associate the pictures with Malcolm Morley’s landscapes sprinkled with toy boats, planes, and soldiers, or with Joseph Cornell’s boxes. So it’s unsettling to spot, in Roads and Tracks, a woman in a bathing suit coming up from a glass, or, in the same picture, a man about to stomp on someone who is lying on a railroad track. The rising woman and the stomping man may be figurines Farber had on hand, but they look more like little people he created for the occasion. Finding them is almost like standing before one of Cornell’s aviary boxes and realizing that one of the birds in it is a real bird, quietly and motionlessly eyeing you.

Taking in Farber’s from-above still lifes as a whole, we are given the sense of an artist who woke up one morning with a device for picture-making, one that has turned out to be unusually supple. Not that all his efforts to move along his project have been successful. When he places his array of toys, notepads, and vegetables on alternating black and white backgrounds, the effect is a little glib. At these moments, or in his occasionally circular paintings, Farber’s very concept feels forced, arbitrary. Yet at the P.S. 1 show, his evolution in itself was the remarkable element. In the scintillating 1995 Batiquitos, Farber’s color has become so fevered and freewheeling, with its dark blues, purples, and reds seemingly trading places as we look, and his brushwork has become so jabbing and flickering (as to suggest Marin or Pascin), that we seem eons away from the cool, dry clarity of Roads and Tracks. Where that picture suggests a map of childhood, Batiquitos (the name of a lagoon near where he lives) conjures up a night in the tropics. Yet the underlying compositional idea of both works is exactly the same.

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