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 through a single loft—for its insistence, as Farber put it, “that the individual is a short-lived negligible phenomenon and that it is the stability of the inanimate that keeps life from flying away.” In the first essay for which they officially took shared credit, a 1972 report on the Venice Film Festival, they lingered on the “movements that barely crack the surface” in the languorous Marguerite Duras film Nathalie Granger: “somnolent clearing of dishes, silent raking in a long neglected pool, burning of dried leaves, sewing of name labels into a child’s wardrobe.”
They emphasized what easily overlooked episodes like those could give a movie, whether it was “a dry, parched air” (Moses und Aron), a “ragged, vitriolic image” (Mean Streets), “a frontal, geometric poise” (the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder), or “a hard, minimal space, with early-morning air wafting through a modern composition” (Jeanne Dielman). They could be ruthless about films they thought closed off such possibilities—“the infuriating Nashville, busily criticizing the music world of Country/Western, hasn’t even bothered to investigate the best sounds of the place”—but their judgments were less about rendering an overall verdict on a film’s quality than about scrutinizing it closely from one moment to the next. They found Louis Malle’s Black Moon (1975) “a rather heartless pastiche,” but they also registered the “damp and romantic early morning light” with which it opened and its “fancifully good” nonhuman actors, including “a terrifically independent rat” and a “wonderfully dumpy unicorn.”
It came down to taking “a hard look at the movies,” as Farber called the film course he taught for years at the University of California at San Diego. His notorious exam questions—reprinted in Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings, an illuminating new book that pairs selections from his work with essays about his career from such figures as Kelly Reichardt, Luc Sante, and Alice Waters—asked students to name the films in which, for instance, “wallpapers suggest unusual states of mind,” or “carrying bread proves to be a hurting experience,” or “white gloves announce death.”
As painters, too, Farber and Patterson wanted to stall the viewer’s eye on detail. In Patterson’s portraits of her hosts in Inishmore, in the Aran islands, where she made numerous trips between 1960 and 1989, the central figures cook, drink, and minister to one another in rooms crowded with objects that glow at the edges of the picture: the bag that dangles next to the figure in Mary at the Stove (1993), for instance, or the wall of neatly hung-up mugs that towers over the one in Nan in the Kitchen (1985). Farber’s bird’s-eye oil paintings set objects loose on their own. In Domestic Movies (1985), matchboxes, house plants, half-eaten meals, thin colored strips inscribed with movie references, and legal pads and Post-it notes carrying handwritten messages all lie askew on an eight-foot square halved into bars of thick orange and turquoise, tugging the eye in dozens of directions at once. The filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin and the writer Patrick Amos called these paintings “still lives that resist stillness.”
To make them, Farber laid a large board on a table and started littering it with items he and Patterson had around the house. (The flowers that fill his later work came from her garden, which she still maintains at the home they shared in Leucadia, California.) He studied the composition from a stepladder as it emerged. Even once “the first three or four objects” were there, he said, he never knew what “course” the rest of the picture would follow; it depended on what other patterns he and Patterson found. “When I think I’ve finished a painting,” he told Art in America in 2004, “then she looks at it, and she decides whether to put something else in or not.”
Their provisional method was a matter of principle. By working “in the face of impermanence and disintegration,” as the art historian Jonathan Crary put it in an essay on Farber, they could insist upon “the value of the contingent, the immediately available, of matter and things at hand.” For the curator Helen Molesworth, it was a way of rebuking “the idea that the artist is somehow separate from the space of the world.” “One Day at a Time,” her sprawling, imaginative show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, interspersed twenty-three paintings by Farber (and just two by Patterson) with work by more than thirty artists—painters, photographers, filmmakers, sculptors—who hit, she argued, on the same sort of mobile, participatory point of view. For Farber it was a matter of not getting hung up on any one shape. What he wanted from art, he wrote, was “the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.”
Farber and Patterson met in 1966 at the suggestion of one of their mutual acquaintances, the photographer Helen Levitt. A few months after their first date, when they saw a revival screening of Shane (they arrived late and left early), they rented a “ratty” apartment together in Lower Manhattan and started talking over the movies they saw. Farber, then forty-nine, had been writing film criticism for more than two decades; as Kent Jones has pointed out, he was himself a surviving example of the sort of 1940s critic he once called “a prospector always repanning and sifting for buried American truth and subconscious life.”1
He was born in 1917 to Lithuanian-Jewish parents in the border town of Douglas, Arizona. His father had gone through rabbinical training but gave it up to run one of two local dry goods stores, and the economic upheavals of the 1930s hovered over the family’s life. “You know, I’m not someone who ever survived the Depression,” Farber once told his colleague Jonathan Rosenbaum. By 1938, he had graduated from the California School of Fine Arts and the Rudolf Schaefer School of Design and needed a job. “Since all the other incipient artists were going to the WPA, I thought it was a corny thing to do,” he remembered, “so I went down to the union hall and looked at all the trades. Carpentry struck me as a noble one, more noble than plumbing.” According to the poet and critic Robert Polito, it became Farber’s main source of income for the next thirty years.
The memory of the Depression seemed to fuel his polemics against films and paintings that made obsequious appeals to wealth and power and prestige. “By the late ’30s,” he remembered in 1979, “there were real, real brutal top dogs running things for their own profit.” The movies he celebrated from that decade and the one after—by Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh—stressed the period’s precariousness. In a brilliant 1954 essay cowritten with W.S. Poster, he praised Sturges’s madcap sense of speed because it was the one way left to satirize
a country so much at the mercy of time and commerce as to be profoundly aware that all its traits—its beauties, blemishes, wealth, poverty, prejudices, and aspirations—are equally the merchandise of the moment, easily manufactured and trembling on the verge of destruction from the moment of production.
In the early 1940s, after living briefly in Washington, D.C., Farber and his first wife, the painter Janet Terrace, moved to New York and rented an apartment in the West Village. He sought out both the city’s writers—James Agee was a close friend—and young New York School painters like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. From the start, he declined to choose between painting and writing. He was making what he later called “pretty awful” realist pictures when he got his first job as a critic by sending a boastful letter to the editor of The New Republic. In Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings, the filmmaker Michael Almereyda points out that Farber’s first pieces there were about art; the book includes a selection of his essays on figures from Goya to Pollock and Mondrian. When the magazine’s film reviewer, Otis Ferguson, enlisted in the Merchant Marines—he died in active duty a year later—Farber took up the movies too.
Between then and 1966 he carried his film column first to Time, then The Nation, then The New Leader, then a magazine “for the American male” called Cavalier. (Polito’s invaluable edition of his complete film writing, including his later collaborations with Patterson, is available from the Library of America.) He divorced and remarried, divorced again years later, and persisted at painting and carpentry. The two were increasingly connected. In the early 1960s he made three-dimensional painted wood assemblages out of material his work crews had left for trash.
In his film reviews and in longer pieces for such magazines as Commentary and Film Culture, he lingered on aspects of the movies it took a keen eye to register: bit players, quirks of location or set design, and what he called “unimportant bits of action that seem to squeeze through the cracks of large scenes.” He was drawn to movies that registered the specificities of their period rather than assigning symbolic importance to every object in the frame; during a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art at the end of the 1970s he urged his listeners to pay attention to “the kind of door handles they’re using in 1979.”2 A delicate feeling for such details jostled in his essays against a kind of macho grandstanding. Farber could be a bully. Insults fly out from his pieces: he thought Maya Deren acted like “tough leather,” charged Anthony Perkins with “coy simpering fragility,” and, unforgettably, called the three young rebels in Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) “waferlike, incubated snits.”
Better substantiated were his invectives against movies that he thought swam with ostentatious artistry and eroded “the spectator’s capacity for noticing.” “Not so long ago,” he wrote in 1952, “the movies, whatever their oversimplifications and distortions,” aspired “to extend the spectator’s meaningful experience, to offer him a window on the real world.” He might have had in mind 1930s films like the ones he cited decades later at MoMA—Jean Renoir’s Toni (1935), Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle (1933)—or the work of the RKO producer Val Lewton, whose “insipidly normal characters” Farber loved because they “reminded one of the actors used in small-town movie ads for the local grocery or shoe store.”3
By the 1950s, the “spirit and convictions of the radical 1930s” had curdled into “a bleak, humorless, free-floating, and essentially pointless misanthropy.” In movies like Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), Farber thought, the point was to repurpose radical gestures—the anti-capitalist politics of the 1930s, or the fragmentary “exhibitionistic” style Orson Welles had pioneered—as badges of artistic seriousness.
Such films were anxious objects. Writing about a comparable batch of movies in 1962, Farber argued that their tightly packed, heavily worked-over style was a sign of fear, “a fear of the potential life, rudeness, and outrageousness” a film could develop if reality had a chance to crack its surface. It was a fear, too, of leaving a movie as imperfect and disarmingly contingent as the world that shaped it. At the Museum of Modern Art he showed clips from The Honeymoon Killers (1970), a grim portrait by the one-off director Leonard Kastle of a misfit couple who murder lonely widows. He thought it captured a “transiency” that dominated the 1970s, now that “jobs have disappeared” and “people have grown disenchanted.” With transiency came “terror,” a sense that life could at any moment be cut short:
Death is a thing that’s all around us. Someone shoots a black woman in Los Angeles because she was trying to pay a light bill or something. They were afraid, so they shoot the woman. Cambodia, the whole nation is wiped out one way or another politically. Death has become free and easy.
A country coursing with murderous fear and “trembling on the verge of destruction” needed art that did something other than promote its own importance. Farber called for “an ambulatory creation which is an act both of observing and being in the world,” an art without fixed goals other than nibbling away at its own borders “and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” When he defined it Farber made a point of giving unhelpfully random examples of what he had in mind: Kurosawa’s Ikiru, “the occasional” sports column by Dick Young, “the last few detective novels of Ross Macdonald,” and, perversely, the early “TV debating of William Buckley.” He kept giving it new names—at one point it became “termite-fungus-centipede art”—but among the several generations of film critics he influenced, “termite art” was the one that stuck.
It might have stuck too firmly. Farber used it twice, in his celebrated Film Culture essay “White Elephant Art Versus Termite Art” (1962) and in the introduction to his 1971 collection, Negative Space. It never appears in the pieces he cowrote with Patterson, and its suggestions of burrowing underground enclosures don’t quite suit many of the spacious, light-filled paintings either of them made.
In 1962 Patterson was finding other ways to steel herself against “gilt culture.” She had been born in Jersey City in 1941; after her parents separated she grew up with her Irish Catholic grandmother. When she was still in her teens she enrolled at Parsons, made friends among New York’s painters and photographers (she babysat for Robert and Mary Frank), and took her first trip to Inishmore after an encounter with the writing of J.M. Synge. She came back from her second long stay there in 1963. “It was the height of Warhol and Pop art,” she told the critic Robert Walsh, “and what I had been doing in Ireland seemed so hopelessly provincial and romantic that I couldn’t bear it.” A restorative trip to Florence, Siena, and Padua gave her a lifelong attachment to Italian painting from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In a 1977 interview she said she loved Fassbinder’s “shadowless Fra Angelico lighting.”
She made paintings and drawings based on her time in Ireland and, in the early 1970s, started painting Aran landscapes on strips of cardboard and paper. According to Farber, she had a crucial part, too, in the large-scale double-sided abstractions, on layered and pleated sheets of Kraft paper, that he made for years after they met. He rolled both faces of those assemblages with what he called “abraded, drowned” shades of red, green, silver, or gold acrylic paint, letting it dry against plastic on one side and soak through a layer of muslin on the other. The “shiny and hard-surfaced” texture of the side that dried directly on the plastic, the critic Sheldon Nodelman observed, contrasted with the “gentler, often diaphanous” image of the muslin-treated side. “The color is strictly from Patricia,” Farber said. “She tells me the color, and I mix the paint.”
In 1970, with almost no money, Farber and Patterson drove to California in an old taxicab, sleeping in a tent in state parks, for what at the time was supposed to be a one-semester teaching job for Farber at UCSD. They never moved back. In San Diego Farber started making modestly scaled overhead views, on paper, of pencils, thumbtacks, candy bars, and liquid paper bottles. He soon turned to larger, more radically decentered paintings on board, in which miniature people and action figures—gun-slinging cowboys feature prominently—scurry across sprawling tracts of patchwork land. Scale bends. In Thinking About ‘History Lessons’ (1979), one of the Farber paintings that welcomed viewers into “One Day at a Time,” a set of train tracks and a line of jammed-up cars weave over a quilt-like landscape around toy buildings, an open book of Japanese erotica, and mobile nude women who stretch and stroll and paint pictures of their own.
In the mid-1980s his sharp, detailed brushwork started loosening, his backgrounds fermented into swirling blocks of color, and those boyish subjects, too, fell away. What took their place were blossoms, apples, gardening tools, dead birds, nibbled-on bread, and roots caked in soil. He started getting his energy from the natural processes—the growth of a potted plant, the ripening of fruit, the rotting of exposed food—that his layers of paint seemed to register as they accumulated. Handwritten notes, a fixture of Farber’s paintings, survived the change. “This is not debris,” a sheet of lined paper warns the viewer in Passive Is the Ticket (1984) amid a vast sprawl of asparagus stalks, potatoes, onions, eggs, and twine. “Every item means something.”
From 1974 onward, Patterson painted with casein, a paint that dried evenly and quickly. (Twice in eleven years she lost huge swaths of work in studio fires; the second, which Farber accidentally started by “making coffee on a cheap hot plate,” destroyed nearly all of her earliest paintings.) Starting in the early 1980s she concentrated on larger-format landscapes and portraits of the Inishmore couples who hosted and befriended her. Unlike Farber, she plotted out her pictures thoroughly in advance. Once she started she worked at an intense pace. Swift layers of red or ochre underpainting swell out from under her figures and shine through objects like the bricks, books, and kitchenware that surround Farber and his assistant Steve Ilott in The Conversation (Manny and Steve at the Table) (1990, see illustration on page 35). She hung some of these paintings in installations like The Kitchen (1985), in which they share the room with fixtures—a table, four chairs, a fireplace, a knickknack-lined mantelpiece, patches of floor tile, a kettle, and a stove—that could have come from the scenes they show.4
“What I really try for,” she told Walsh, “is the sense that things exist on the canvas and breathe.” It made her a sensitive painter of mourning. In 1990 she painted a friend from Inishmore sitting at a kitchen table after the death of her husband (Mary Alone) and made a corresponding low-lying still life of the late man’s flower-covered grave.
By the 1990s Farber and Patterson both seemed increasingly preoccupied with the frailty and impermanence of the everyday subjects they studied. When they denied the eye a central point on which to settle in their paintings, they were forcing their viewers to maneuver around and among those objects, savoring their fleeting arrangements rather than observing them from a dependably unchanging perch.
For Molesworth, who sat in on Farber’s last lectures in 1988 as an undergraduate at UCSD, this was the great lesson of “White Elephant Art Versus Termite Art.” She wanted to recover it. The shape of “One Day at a Time” itself became a kind of argument for the diffuse, nonhierarchical sensibility she saw in that essay. Farber’s own paintings organized the show but didn’t dominate it. Molesworth wanted them to harmonize with—and sometimes “jostle”—other disparate artworks linked by fragile but suggestive lines of affinity.
The artists she chose share an interest in putting works of art on a level with more transient objects. Found material littered the show, like the two thrift shop chairs Roy McMakin—one of Farber and Patterson’s students—meticulously duplicated and then “retired” by hanging on a wall, or the “broken-down tractor” the sculptor Charles Ray recast in aluminum part by part, or the dozens of used bottles photographed by Farber’s former teaching assistant Moyra Davey, or the table of glassware the discerning vendor in Jordan Casteel’s painting Glass Man Michael (2016) sells by a wall that announces, in capital letters, “HARLEM—NOT/FOR—SALE/FIGHT—BACK.” It’s a shame that this inspired grouping didn’t include more than two of Patterson’s paintings, since scenes like Pat Chopping, Cóilín Sulking (1982)—a widely framed scene of kitchen labor that calls sly attention to the kettles and newspaper pages at the periphery of the composition—suit those concerns so well.
Farber’s later floral paintings punctuated “One Day at a Time,” a counterpart to the flashier compositions with which it opened. The white blossoms that run down the left side of Ingenious Zeus (2000), tangled in branches and leaves; the two huge sunflowers—one facing us, the other turned away—that dominate a long, bright yellow composition called About Face (1990); or the enormous flowers that loom over a flimsy, cartoonish yellow skull in Patricia’s a Legend (1986) all seem to rebuke the morbid, violent thoughts that had energized his earlier work.
By the 1980s his paintings had become evolving extensions of the life he and Patterson built together. Any flowers or Post-it notes in a given composition could have been, in Molesworth’s words, “gifts, tokens of affection, love letters.” Objects floated in from outside. Everything could be rearranged, recycled, put to fresh uses. One of these late paintings—Activity Staking, a diptych of potted plants, gardening equipment, books, and red and orange fruits strewn across a bright blue backdrop—has a handwritten note in one of its corners. “When you’re done we can plant them,” it says.
The journal Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema devoted a special issue (Vol. II, No. 4) to Farber in 2014. Among its contributions I am especially indebted to Jones’s dialogue with Jean-Pierre Gorin, “The Law of the Frame,” and Robert Walsh’s joint portrait of Farber and Patterson, “Hybrid: Our Lives Together.” ↩
I introduced the first published excerpts from that lecture in Film Comment, Vol. 55, No. 1 (January–February 2019). ↩
In these pages (“A World of His Own,” April 28, 2005), Sanford Schwartz has written that Farber aspired to “an ego-free, centerless, egalitarian realm, where the pleasures of shared, everyday, domestic life are the deepest.” ↩
See Patricia Patterson: Here and There, Back and Forth, a catalog for an exhibition at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido Museum, February 12–July 4, 2011. A show of Patterson’s work will run at the Quint Gallery, La Jolla, from July 20 to September 14, 2019. ↩