Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings
In the early 1990s the French director Maurice Pialat made a strange, absorbing film that reimagined the last three months of Vincent van Gogh’s life. Rather than concentrate on his painting—only a few brief scenes show the artist at work—Pialat emphasized the grinding discomfort of his relationships, the luminous faces of his drinking and dancing companions, and the unglamorous business that went on around him as he was seeing a physician in Auvers-sur-Oise: the washing of laundry, the stacking of chairs, the making of meals. After Van Gogh (Jacques Dutronc) shoots himself in the side, off-camera, Pialat cuts to a shot of the woman who runs the boardinghouse where he’s staying as she and her family share a meal around a wooden table. After a few seconds, the wounded painter walks past them in the background. “Who was that?” she asks. “Mr. Van Gogh,” says her young daughter. She pauses. “Why isn’t he eating with us?”
Van Gogh fascinated Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson, the married American painters and writers who lived and taught for many years in Southern California and, in the 1970s, cowrote a dense, suggestive body of essays on film. They started sharing a byline in 1972 after six years of uncredited collaboration under Farber’s name; their last piece, on Chantal Akerman, appeared in 1977. “That’s one of the things that kills me about getting away from criticism, that we were never able to do Van Gogh,” Farber told the critic and filmmaker Kent Jones in 2000. “God knows, we’ve seen it thousands of times.” They were drawn to Pialat’s odd, “staccato” way of carving up space. “His focus is closer to the ground than other people’s,” Farber said. “So he gets some very intimate things.”
From Farber and Patterson it would be hard to imagine higher praise. In their film criticism and in the many paintings they worked on side by side until Farber’s death in 2008, they tried to make room for a kind of traffic between artworks—the movie on the screen, the picture on the wall—and the cluttered, lived-in, disruptive environments that shaped them. They never cosigned their paintings, and as artists they developed markedly different styles. But they both mistrusted art that seemed built to showcase a single polished, complete vision—what Farber called “gilt culture,” “masterpiece art,” or “that arty pursuit.” What absorbed them instead were the strategies a film or a painting could deploy to undercut its own ambitious designs, stay provisional, and become a kind of garden of wild, colorful, blooming facts.
One of those strategies was to pay close attention to the weight of specific objects. Farber and Patterson liked Michael Snow’s film Wavelength (1967)—a forty-five-minute zoom…
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