PRINT February 1985


NOT UNEXPECTEDLY, MOST writing on Manny Farber’s painting slips into a contemporary Laocoön-like controversy which cannot reconcile his considerable reputation as a critic with his activities as a painter. Critics get stuck on the idea that his writing on film and art imperiously haunts his painting insofar as the painting is read as a kind of film criticism of specific films and directors, as if the iconography of his pictures were only a collection of hit images and idiosyncratic references to a specific film maker’s work. Once Farber’s paintings are simply thought of as iconographic checklists of movie favorites, it’s just a short hop to the complaint that he’s a moldy scholiast holed up in his closet of film buffology that no one else is able, or cares, to enter. This is a peculiar take on Farber’s painting, because his film criticism has never been involved in such mundane film-fact calisthenics. Even if the critic were able to work him or herself up into a frenzy over Farber’s pictures, sifting through and compiling the iconographic references of the elements within the paintings, nothing would be gained in the end save for an enormous inventory of disjointed notes whose possible combinations would yield little significance, and would never approximate Farber’s agile writing on film.

There’s no doubt that Farber’s painting, particularly the “Auteur Series” of 1976 to ’78, makes specific references to film, but to regard these references as the bottom line of the work is to miss the point. In a later work on the same theme, Thank God I’m Still an Atheist, 1981, the title appears as a scribbled note in the painting. It is the famous remark Luis Buñuel once made to a reporter which encapsulates his parody of, yet reliance on, the Church in his filmmaking. The painting is a nearly 6-foot-wide tondo with a scratched, pale-colored ground (not unlike the landscapes of Buñuel’s Mexican period films) on which 70 or so painted objects appear. Toward the bottom of the picture is a Mexican folk art doll, bent over backward like an inverted spider. This limbo-dancing doll is set on top of the pages of an open book which contains photographic illustrations, maybe a film sequence, showing a man and a woman preparing for bed. The contiguity of the doll and the book is no doubt a comment on Buñuel’s treatment of sexuality. The doll is most likely Beatriz, the Mary Magdalen of Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959), and recalls the signature scene in which this soon-to-be converted, bedeviled saint with boy trouble performs an orgiastic backbend in the local bar as she dreams of biting off her sadistic lover’s lips. This doll projects the sexuality of such early Buñuel films as his and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1928); in both Nazarin and Farber’s painting, Beatriz’s acrobatics recall Alberto Giacometti’s Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932. The photographic illustrations depict Buñuel’s more recent treatment of the subject of sex, in the Catherine Deneuve/Fernando Rey movies (Tristana, 1970, for example), as dilettantish rituals of perversities and fetishes of mock passion. One could stay on this route, speculating about all the possible references to Buñuel in Thank God I’m Still an Atheist, but this quiz-kid prattle leads nowhere, because Farber’s paintings are not film almanacs or paintings about film. On the contrary, they are about a way of seeing, writing, and painting as if one were moving through a landscape—Farber has called it “termite movement.”

In a lengthy interview between Richard Thompson and Farber and his writing collaborator, Patricia Patterson, Farber offered a brief chronology of his career and postscripted it with a remark about landscape:

But this leaves out all the landscape of my life—I mean what landscape means to me. I was always heavily involved in it. The landscape that I live in is very important, just as the language that I decided on as a critic was excruciatingly important.1

Farber thinks of language as a kind of landscape through which his criticism travels. His criticism always works from the inside, tunneling into a film or work:

Most of what I liked [in movies, art, and criticism] is in the termite area. The important trait of termite-fungus-centipede art is an ambulatory creation which is an act both of observing and being in the world, a journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside world through a horizontal coverage.2

Farber is a termite-critic-centipede who bases his writing and painting in an ontological chew through a landscape. His critical work travels in an endless movement that records bursts of observation in a language that asserts its own opacity, complexity, and surface, and also its own inability to arrive at closure. S. J. Perelman once characterized Farber’s language as "labyrinthine. . . . [H]e picks up a complex sentence full of interlocking clauses and sends it rumbling down the alley.”3 Farber’s language becomes filigreed as it pursues its own desire to find an end:

There’s a desire to know more and more. Why? One of the most important facts about criticism is obvious: it’s based on language and words. The desire is always to pursue: what does the word mean, or the sentence, or the paragraph, and where does it lead? As you follow language out, it becomes more and more webbed, complex. The desire is always to find the end. In any thought you put down, what you’re seeking is truth: what is the most believable fact and where is the end? You always have to seek the end. . . . You get to an end, but by then the thing is filigreed; it becomes like Henry James, or Middlemarch, or Parade’s End or Melville.4

Farber’s paintings, like his criticism, locate themselves on the path of the termite, and it is in this landscape that the work might best be pursued. Not only are all the paintings of the past five years literally landscape paintings (they depict a landscape as seen from several points above), they’re emphatically suggestive of the termite movement as a traversal through a landscape that persuades the viewer to slide along the surface of the picture in a horizontal movement (both spatially and textually).

Compositionally, Farber’s paintings of the past five years are arranged centrifugally. The painted objects are dispersed away from the center of his paintings, ganging up on each other like a lineup of paratroopers about to jump from the painting’s edge. Occasionally, as in Shadow World, 1983, a figure or object might be found within the plains of the picture’s center, but the figure or object is always poignantly isolated. Train tracks often run through the centers of the paintings, going coast to coast to connect the densely populated edges. The tracks in Farber’s work take on several connotations. In For Fontaine Fox, 1983, they carry the “Toonerville Trolley that Meets All Trains,” based on the popular series of Fontaine Fox comics of the early ’20s. The tracks in both Fox’s comics and Farber’s paintings are not about getting from one place to another, but they are about movement. The Toonerville Trolley first appeared with editorials in a Louisville newspaper about the town’s turn-of-the-century rail system. Fox’s trolley was admired for its picturesque route—it was a tangle of tracks that ran irregularly across the landscape—but it was also the town joke because it was always breaking down (running off the track, stalling, losing its brakes down hills). The Toonerville Trolley is an allegory of the termite’s space.

Just as Farber’s tracks and objects run off the edges of his landscapes, Fox’s compositions are bomb blasts of centrifugal force that break out of their containing frames. Farber pays homage to Fox’s deployment of space and dispersal of objects by citing further from “Toonerville Trolley” in the painting. The explosive force of Fox’s compositions is driven by the volatility of his key characters, among them the “Powerful Katrinka” and the “Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang.” In Farber’s version Aunt Eppie Hogg zooms down a banister, while The Tough Kid, Mickey “Himself” McGuire, is perched on the edge of the speedboat toward the bottom of the painting.

The outward thrust of Farber’s compositions is reiterated in the way meaning is deflected across the landscapes of the paintings. No object in one of Farber’s paintings ever refers only to itself, but instead delegates its reference, its claim to significance, in a lateral motion toward the outside of the picture. This textual deferral of meaning is accomplished in several ways. The grounds of Farber’s recent paintings are intensely colored mat surfaces devoid of brushwork; they repel any object that might attempt to put its hooks into their pure chroma. Objects supported by these grounds are always precariously balanced, teetering; they can never settle into a pocket of space. This precarious situation sets up the syntagmatic ricochets and bumpercar metonymies that the placement of these objects sets off; their contiguities and combinations are always potentially meaningful, but never cease to be semantically oscillating. Meaning is also deflected and deferred across these landscapes by the cynical, deadpan rendering of objects. In For Fontaine Fox, for example, Farber tirelessly renders a potato in Skil Saw hatchings of contour and layerings, scrapings, and scratchings of paint, not to convey the essence of “potatoness,” nor to present the phenomenal appearance of a potato, in the way that Cézanne’s apples present their own materiality; nor is the object infused with some bathos of “this is all we have for dinner.” Instead it carries the thud of an icon stripped of associations—it becomes a mealy billiard ball which deflects meaning away from itself. Objects in Farber’s work deflect meaning to the outside of the painting along filar paths and detours of aborted meaning. The termite burrows through a horizonless, but not humorless, landscape of significance.

It is in this sense of the horizontal deflection of meaning, which Farber calls “continuation,” that his paintings and criticism might be compared:

Richard Thompson [interviewer]: What’s “continuation”?

Manny Farber: It’s an idea that’s been missing from criticism. Continuation involves constant attempts to stretch out the moment—as in [Jacques Rivette’s] L’Amour fou—_expanding its parameters step by step. In the Rivette, it involves moving back from a romantic discussion between two neurotics to see the space they occupy, then to perceive the space as a stage, then their discussion as a rehearsal, and so on . . . . Continuation is about entry. It’s anticonclusive, it stresses involvement, and it grows out of the termite notion. You keep moving forward and extending the time element as you go.5

In this statement and elsewhere Farber invokes a notion of textuality—the idea that words, sentences, paragraphs, etc., are not atoms of meaning that add up to the “theme” or the “book,” but instead that any significative fragment (a piece of film, a painted object, a sentence, etc.) can be conceived as an element among other elements whose fortuitous arrangement governs the dissemination of meaning.

Farber’s termitic notion of continuation brings into the foreground the once backseat trope of metonymy and metonymic style. He has always favored the swarming detail of metonymical style, from the writing of Henry James to ’50s B-action movies, while he invariably goes sour on the filmic simile and the metaphorical style of, say, Charlie Chaplin, or of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941). The metonymic is all about the termitic movement of continuation, the endless microweaving of detail in the writing of Henry James, say, or the rich studied mise-en-scène of a Nicholas Ray film. Farber writes and paints from a bug’s-eye view—he is interested in the relations of part to part, and never in the relations of part to whole. Just as it is impossible to come away from his writing with a tidy slogan, his painting defies the critic schooled in the poetics of metaphor, always looking for the one-liner, because there just isn’t one.

Tuy Was Great!, 1984, is a tondo split vertically down the middle into a red and black ground. lt’s perhaps the most viscous of Farber’s recent paintings—a lot of knife work, no linseed oil for miles, and a morose, Goyaesque preoccupation with red on red and black on black. This painting is about Spain: one note reads, “I wish we were back in Spain; there’s a Spanish-style woman’s shoe, a pad of stationery on which is printed ”Colon Tuy Hotel" (Tuy is a town on the Spanish side of the border between Spain and Portugal). The composition of Tuy Was Great! avoids some of the easier moves of earlier tondos in that its ground is cut up not like a pie, but down the middle, and there are no concentric circles of tracks (as in For Fontaine Fox) to echo the shape of the painting. The composition is precarious, emphasizing the formal and metonymical space of uncorralled movement. The single device that prevents the objects of the painting from slipping over the edge is a series of tiles or thick color chips painted so as to appear to be in relief, which hug the perimeter of the painting_ These tiles emphasize the shape of the picture’s support, but also double as platforms for the centrifugal movement. They make the painting pop, triggering the paddle-ball oscillation of space, a Ia Hans Hoffmann, in the rest of the painting.

Tuy Was Great! is extremely cluttered, almost a polemic on clutter, with overlappings of figures, objects, scraps of paper, and lengths of tape. In the center is a large woman seated on a bidet with her back turned toward us, occupied in a private activity, and blown up disproportionately to emphasize our prying embarrassment. This bidet-woman has the skin of a motorcycle casualty, and her contour seems to have been transposed from links of chorizo. She is made of paint pushed with a vengeful palette knife; a Valpinçon Bather she is not. Beneath this woman and her fixture is the note, "Splish, splash, I was taking a bath, hoping everything was all. . . . ,” another tease on our prying.

To the left of the bidet woman is another scrap of paper on which appears a movie list: "Voyage to Italy, Gun Crazy, Europa 51, On Dangerous Ground, Johnny Guitar, Forty Guns, Pickup on South Street, Written on the Wind, All that Heaven Allows, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, A Man Escaped, Mouchette”—mostly movies from the ’50s, and all characteristic of a metonymic style of filmmaking. Granted, Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) and A Man Escaped (1955) are candidates for the metaphoric, with their dead-serious transcendentalist undercurrents, but Bresson’s obsession with physical detail and how-to sequences—how to make a pot of coffee in Mouchette, how to tie a knot in A Man Escaped—are certainly characteristic of a metonymic style of filmmaking.

Several notes are strewn around the landscape of this painting: a fortune-cookie chit that reads “TAKE POISON” is next to another that says “WHAT FOR?,” as if to suggest that things wouldn’t really be much better anyway. Another note reads, “Don’t do anything but paint,” next to a piece of candy labeled “bad”—and so on. One of several flash cards in the painting reads “meat”—of which there’s plenty in the picture: a woman holds a trio of dead rabbits by the feet as matter-of-factly as a handbag; chickens comprised of a few strokes of dry paint, a turkey leashed to a walking figure. Gone are the tracks found in earlier paintings, which suggested the lateral movement of a train or a camera dolly, but in their place are pieces of yellow tape that stretch across the picture, as well as several “Metro” tickets that invite movement through the picture’s landscape.

How is it that Farber’s criticism and painting can be read as landscapes of textuality, refusing false hierarchies, when he is so often referred to as one of the founders of auteurism this side of the Atlantic? Textualism is of course antithetical to auteurism; it’s founded on the grave of the notion of the author/director/painter as demigod, genius, and one-man show. Farber is not an auteurist critic—never has been, never will be; he’s a mise-en-scène critic and painter. Farber’s writing, even when it deals with the work of a single director, is never looking over his or her shoulder marveling at some exotic feat of genius. On the contrary, he is always inside the landscape (be it film, writing, or painting), surrounded by its infinitely detailed mise-en-scène, and he is always in motion. Whenever a director plays the auteurist role, like some Roman orator with one hand pointed skyward, one hand pointing to his trap, Farber is on him like an overzealous watchdog:

An exemplar of white elephant art, particularly the critic-devouring virtue of filling every pore of a work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity, is François Truffaut. . . . From The 400 Blows onward, his films are bound in and embarrassed by his having made up his mind what the film is to be about.6

An inverted self-help list in his recent painting Keep Blaming Everyone, 1984, reads:

Things you could drop:
1. hard edge
2. using a ruler
3. exaggerated clutter
4. taking months on each picture
5. yoga

These notes serve to point out two things: that paintings don’t drop from the sky, someone has to paint them (don’t believe anyone who leads you to believe otherwise); and that the process of painting involves a mise-en-scène, a landscape, which surrounds the painter and over which he does not have complete control, but through which he can at least move with a brilliant tenacity.

Kevin Parker is a critic who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif.



1. Richard Thompson. “Patricia Patterson and Manny Farber Interviewed by Richard Thompson,” Film Comment, May–June 1977. p. 38.

2. Manny Farber, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, New York: Praeger, 1971, p. 10.

3. S.J. Perelman. “Hell in Gabardines,” The Most of S.J. Perelman, New York Simon and Schuster, 1958, p. 167.

4. Thompson, pp. 41–42.

5. Thompson, p. 42.

6. Farber, Negative Space, p. 140.