Manny Farber, Critic and Painter

On Film / The Daily — Nov 20, 2019
Manny Farber, Domestic Movies, 1985 (detail)

When asked in 1977 about the relationship between his painting and his film criticism, Manny Farber famously replied, “The brutal fact is that they’re exactly the same thing.” Poet and critic Robert Polito explores the implications of this “brutal fact” in the introduction to Manny Farber: Paintings & Writings, a collection of essays he’s coedited with director Michael Almereyda and novelist Jonathan Lethem. Contributors include filmmakers Olivier Assayas, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Chris Petit, Kelly Reichardt, Gina Telaroli, and Wim Wenders; critics Greil Marcus, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Luc Sante, and Robert Storr; artist Moyra Davey; and Patricia Patterson, the artist whom Farber met in 1966, began collaborating with, and eventually married. On Friday evening in New York, Polito, Almereyda, Davey, Reichardt, Sante, and Telaroli will present the new volume at 192 Books.

In the excerpt from the introduction at Literary Hub, Polito recalls that it was while he was editing the 2009 Library of America collection Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber that he began to notice that Farber’s film criticism “everywhere appeared to imply his own paintings—though not however the abstract art he actually was pursuing while he wrote criticism, but rather the whirlpool, multiple-perspective paintings he would eventually reach years, decades ahead. His conjurings of favorite directors especially—Hawks, Wellman, Sturges, Lewton, Siegel, Godard, Bresson, Warhol, Fassbinder, and Akerman—etched self-portrait predictions of that future painter.”

Farber grew up in Arizona and studied at UC Berkeley and Stanford before moving to New York in 1942. Carpentry was the day job that kept his head just above water while he painted under the influence of the abstract expressionists and began writing about movies for the New Republic. Eventually, he contributed to publications as varied as Time and Film Culture, Film Comment and Artforum. Philip Leider, who was editing Artforum in the late 1960s, recalls in Amy Newman’s oral history of the magazine that he first found Farber “living like a rat on the waterfront.” Farber agreed to write for him, though he insisted on being paid in cash and warned that he had a problem with deadlines. “I didn’t think anybody aced me on movies as long as I had Manny,” Leider says. Coeditor Annette Michelson “loved him. Even Clem”—the immensely influential art critic Clement Greenberg—“said, ‘Yeah, you know all the time those guys would talk about how great James Agee was on the Nation, but I always thought that guy writing movies for the New Republic was much better.’”

Meeting Patricia Patterson was a major turning point in Farber’s life and work. We can see the influence of her vibrant realist paintings in Farber’s later work. In 1970, the couple moved to San Diego, where Farber started teaching at UC. He encouraged Jean-Pierre Gorin, who had cofounded the Dziga Vertov Group, a filmmaking collective, with Jean-Luc Godard, to leave France and join him in the visual arts department. It was during these years that “Manny reinvented himself as a radically different artist,” writes Polito, “first hesitantly, then prolifically, creating in his sixties, seventies, and eighties a new framework for representational paintings—a late exuberance of candy bars, stationery, film titles, movie directors, toys, miniatures, stencils, cutouts, household tools, kitchen articles, fruit, dead birds, open books, handwritten notes, and flowers, all radically decentered and multi-focused.”

Farber and Patterson often wrote together, and as Max Nelson notes in the New York Review of Books, “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.” This dichotomy was first hammered home in Farber’s famous 1962 essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.” In white elephant art, Farber saw “yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition,” while “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art . . . goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”

Writing for Art in America, Leah Ollman suggests that what Farber “championed in print, he materialized in paint: a reckoning with the ‘deeply lived-in incident,’ with the minute psychic and material construction of a life . . . With directorial deliberateness, he distributed across the surfaces an array of offerings: flowers and vegetables grown just beyond the studio wall by Patricia; lengths of rebar and masking tape; books open to reproductions of Japanese erotic prints and other art; cardboard cutouts of tools, skulls, keyholes; hand-scrawled notes and lists. worry about everything, he scratched into a small white rectangle that floats atop radiant sunflower gold in Patricia’s a Legend (1986). In the narrative of a life, everything matters, everything counts.”


For the New Yorker earlier this year, Alex Abramovich reviewed One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Abramovich noted that, in her contribution to the catalog, curator Helen Molesworth recalls a conversation with Gorin in which he told her Farber ultimately rejected the premise of that landmark essay about white elephants and termites. “I think he hated it in part because people tried to tether him to it,” he told her. “He knew the article was fundamentally flawed, and what’s flawed about it is the ‘versus.’” And Molesworth exclaims, “Of course! The essay is structurally flawed by a false antinomy, an either/or scenario doomed to generate opinions rather than dialogue. Anyway, who wants to have an argument that only has two sides?”

I can’t wrap without adding a few suggestions for further reading. After Farber died in the summer of 2008, Rouge republished Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1983 essay on Farber’s “movie paintings.” A 2014 special issue of Comparative Cinema on Farber with contributions from Gorin and Kent Jones, Polito, J. Hoberman, and Albert Serra is freely available to read online or download. And offline, there’s the chapter on Farber in David Bordwell’s marvelous 2016 book The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture.

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