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.
What Farber’s place is in contemporary art has yet to be determined. He is such a world unto himself, and his pictures have been seen so rarely alongside those of other painters—nearly all his pictures seem to be in Southern California collections—that he is in effect not yet a part of American art. For those involved with film history and criticism, however, particularly criticism taken as a personal and literary response, Farber can be talked about in the same breath as James Agee and Pauline Kael. A selection of his movie journalism appeared in 1971 as Negative Space, and in 1998 it was reprinted with pieces he wrote until 1977, the last year he did any reviews. These later articles were mostly collaborations with Patricia Patterson, who joined Farber in a lengthy and fascinating 1977 interview which ends this updated edition.
Farber’s movie criticism is at once thrilling and disappointing, thrilling because he gets us to think about movies in a new way, almost as a brand-new art form, and disappointing because much of his writing comes across as a string of dead-end attacks on films that failed to fill the bill for him. Farber’s crispest and most memorable writing comes in his early years when he wanted to write about the low-budget Hollywood pictures of the 1930s and 1940s, be they crime melodramas, office comedies, westerns, combat, or horror films. Some of those he likes—Fixed Bayonets, The Leopard Man, The Phenix City Story—are pure B movies, while many others, including such Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh films as Scarface, His Girl Friday, They Drive by Night, and White Heat, have come to be considered, in part through Farber’s own writing, classics of a sort. It was through his feeling for all these often fast-paced films that Farber derived his formulation of “white elephant art vs. termite art.” He means, at its broadest, a distinction between art made to satisfy a desire for cultural fame, to stand as a masterpiece, versus art that, as he wrote about Hawks’s The Big Sleep, has “no ambitions toward gilt culture” but is a “kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything.”
Farber, of course, is on the side of what he calls “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art”—art that, as he amplifies his termite metaphor,
feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning those boundaries into the conditions of the next achievement.
Farber is for works that, as he elaborates, were made without airs and with a fluid, easygoing interdependence between acting, story, sets, and direction, put together by people who might even have thought of themselves as anonymous craftsmen. One of the elements he is drawn to in B movies is that such pictures often dwell on craftsmanship in itself; we get to see, for its own sake, how some activity is carried out. In “white elephant” films, however, the interdependence and unity of a B are torn apart by the moviemakers’ self-conscious quest for a masterpiece, or their fashioning their film as primarily a vehicle for a star, or their making of each shot a striking visual composition.
Farber never puts all his thoughts on “termite” art in one neat, large package. Fittingly, he keeps adding little aspects to his overall conception in an unpredictable way as he goes along. For a reader, however, Farber’s ideas coalesce into a vision of art as a mirror of social equality and human happiness. Although he makes us want to see Pickup on South Street, say, or Born to Kill, the actual movies he admires are less the point than his conception of a kind of moviemaking (and moviegoing) that is kin to a communal farm or a well-knit village in action. Needless to say, Farber is presenting a myth to us as surely as the critic who can’t stop celebrating the genius of a white elephant type such as Sergei Eisenstein. We know we are encountering something of a fantasy when we read in a 1952 piece that Val Lewton (who produced Death Ship and The Body Snatcher)
would take a group of young newcomers who delighted in being creative without being fashionably intellectual…and they would turn $214,000 into warm charm and interesting technique that got seen because people, rather than press agents, built its reputation.
Yet while the words “warm charm and interesting technique” may seem anticlimactic or commonplace, they are also tender. Farber never oversells his choice films.
Even more impressive is the way Farber’s conception of the genius-free Bs widens to include a specific idea about form. Farber’s own genius was to see how the look and texture of the Hollywood quickie, where the “low budget appears to economize the mind of a director, forcing him into a nice balance between language and what is seen,” and where a lovingly used setting might carry exactly the same weight as the performances or the film’s overall psychology, could translate into a metaphor of centerlessness. In Farber’s thinking, a movie by Jean Cocteau (a white elephant type director) is made up of scenes that are “portraits in motion.” A Val Lewton film, on the contrary, “shows a way to tell a story about people that isn’t dominated by the activity, weight, size, and pace of the human figure.” And while we would assume that the Cocteau movie was art and the horror flick a fun nothing, Farber, getting us to see a movie almost as if it were an object we could hold in our hands, turns our assumptions upside down.
Absorbing Farber’s logic, we can visualize how the 1951 Background to Danger, for instance, described as a “tough, perceptive commercial job glorifying the P-men (Post-Office sleuths), set in an authentically desolate wasteland around Gary, Indiana,” might be a work that, in the way it doesn’t call attention to its director’s style, and in its interweaving of actors and locales, is unexpectedly similar to a number of radical twentieth-century artworks. Farber, naturally, doesn’t make a direct connection between the Bs and modern art. The last thing he wants is for movies to be given the imprimatur of high culture. But a reader might imagine Background to Danger as the unintended progeny of, say, the gray-toned, analytical Cubist paintings that Picasso and Braque did when they were fashioning this new style. The works the painters made in those first years are so much alike that we lose our sense of the individual creators “Picasso” and “Braque”; and in the Cubist works themselves, of course, faces, bodies, and all else are dispersed into a centerless flow of chopped-up bits. It’s hardly a leap at all to see Background to Danger in the background of Farber’s own paintings.
Farber’s feeling for an art without hierarchies extends to his very language and to the way he constructed his reviews. On the one hand, there are moments in his writing when he brilliantly nabs aspects of a film. Thinking of the organic flow of a movie, he says that the “verve” of The Third Man comes from “squirting Orson Welles into the plot piecemeal with a tricky, facetious eyedropper.” About Buñuel, we hear that every one of his movies “has one elegant actor moving at a different pace from the others” and that “it is the sinister fact of a Buñuel movie that no one is going anywhere and there is never any release at the end of the film.” In a strong piece on Preston Sturges (written with W.S. Poster), we read that as
the words sluice out of [his] actors’ mouths, the impression is that they teeter on the edge of a social, economic, or psychological cliff and that they are under some wild compulsion to set the record straight before plunging out of the picture.
But Farber’s prose is rarely visited by these acute Agee-like or Kael-like summarizing flashes. Although he would appear to be a colloquial, snap-happy writer, much given to puns and ready as any gossip columnist to needle movie stars, Farber often needs some rereading to be comprehensible. In termite fashion, his articles move in every direction; they tend not to have clear-cut beginnings or conclusions, and seem more like a chunk of prose cut out of a larger chewing-over of thoughts that cannot come to a resolution. Believing criticism to be a discussion of ideas and themes, and implying that the critic who wants principally to praise or to condemn is a functionary at the service of the genius industry, he refuses to give a solid feeling of where he stands, even on occasion casting overboard his unassuming Bs (and often leaving the reader completely dizzy). His aggressively cavalier attitude toward imparting conventionally necessary information in a piece reaches a funny high point in his underwhelmed response to Elia Kazan’s movie of A Streetcar Named Desire and seemingly to the play itself, whose unnamed heroine Farber calls “a neurotic Southern girl.”
Farber had a tough time with movies beginning in the early 1950s, and the doldrums stretched out for him for some fifteen years. He wasn’t the only critic who felt that the more self-consciously stylish Hollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s and then the various waves of Swedish, English, Japanese, French, and Italian movies of the time were too determinedly artistic for their own good. Pauline Kael, who was two years younger than Farber and also grew up in the West—and also grew up on the classic studio productions of the 1930s, with their mesh of tight, careful scripts and polished ensemble acting—had similar problems with the symbolism of Bergman and Fellini, with Tony Richardson’s jazzed-up realism and Antonioni’s slowed-down pace. But Kael’s writing during this time isn’t encumbered, as Farber’s is, by a sense that the whole culture had become an inferno of sham film maestros flaunting their wares. She found plenty to like (and for many moviegoers, it should be noted, the era was the opposite of impoverished).
In a good proportion of Negative Space, Farber is primarily disgruntled, and his response gives off, in its wake, few tangible perceptions. Beginning in the late 1960s, though, in movies by Jean-Luc Godard and Michael Snow, and later by Werner Herzog, Rainer Maria Fassbinder, and Chantal Akerman, among others, Farber saw qualities that reanimated his earlier enthusiasm for films where most members of the cast had an equal presence, or a director might look at a locale or an action with a seemingly neutral, documentarian’s eye. The similarities between these experimental European and Canadian filmmakers and Farber’s chosen Hollywood directors of thirty years before aren’t immediately apparent. Yet when, to take one example, he rightly says of Godard that “his is basically an art of equal emphasis: it’s against crescendos and climaxes,” we are charmed by the thought that, like a magic trick, Farber’s sense of space, tempo, and how to emphasize actors (or deemphasize them) all makes sense again with a new group of moviemakers.
It can seem odd that Farber’s values are germane to movies, such as Godard’s Band of Outsiders, that tend to be formally severe, impersonally distanced in tone, and limited in popular appeal. But then Farber, who saw white elephant art as “tied to the realm of celebrity and affluence,” was all along, as a movie reviewer, more of a moral censor, and less concerned with pleasure or entertainment in themselves, than his association with Howard Hawks or Hollywood Bs implied.
Farber’s painting of the last decade or so conveys a great sense of plea-sure and contentment, however. His bulletin board–like spaces, festooned with gardening tools, flowers, zucchini, figs, persimmons, trapped gophers, leaves, rods for garden paths, lengths of string, vines, petals, and birds (broken up with visual references to various old masters), present a paradise of domestic busyness and productivity. With his background colors tending to loamy red-browns and, in the past few years, a smokey Fra Angelico blue, his pictures amount to so many earthscapes and, possibly, skyscapes. His recent paintings with sky-blue backgrounds are characteristically disorienting, as we think of Farber’s pictures as images we look down on, or out against, not up at. The works as a whole, though, are on a straight line from Farber’s conception of “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art.” We seem to be seeing what such a directionlessly growing universe literally looks like.
In his recent interview in Art in America, Farber also makes clear that his representational paintings have been collaborations of a sort with his wife, much as his later movie reviews were. He says that from the beginning Patterson gave him ideas on color and on what objects to paint. The garden world he shows is her domain as well. That the paintings might be jointly authored with Patterson is not an idea that surfaces in the many warmly perceptive essays in the catalog of Farber’s retrospective, so it is a little startling to learn about it now. Yet Farber’s wanting us to know that his wife is part of his working process is entirely in keeping with his desire for an art that is free of the demands of individual genius. As collaborations, the paintings further live out Farber’s quest for an art where the lone creator is not the point. The only flaw from the standpoint of his theory would appear if viewers, looking at such paintings as Roads and Tracks and Batiquitos, should think them masterpieces, and wonder whether Farber wasn’t a bit of a white elephant type himself.
April 28, 2005