New York

Manny Farber

O.K. Harris Gallery

There are no apparent loose ends to jar the initial impression of refined color and texture in Manny Farber’s paintings at O.K. Harris. They appear very smooth at first with no gaucheries that might yield new discoveries. Farber builds his paint surfaces out of brown kraft paper, joined together with paper tape. He coats the paper heavily on both sides with acrylic to preserve and stiffen it, a process that gives it the feel of heavy parchment. The works are small enough (approximately 6 by 8 feet) to be encompassed by the viewer, rather than enveloping him. Most of the paintings are non-rectangular.

Farber relies on the interaction of real and illusory textures for interest. He forces the paper into wrinkles, ripples, gullies and veinings; then balances them against paint texture, so skillfully that the pigment incident seems part of the palpable texture. In the most corrugated works, the paint is a trace of the wrinkling process, welling in some furrows and collecting around the edges of others. There is usually one predominant color worked against almost invisible underlayers of other tints.

Farber keeps the scale of texture and the visual weight of color incident closely jibing. But the care and delicacy with which he balances everything limits almost more than it strengthens. His paintings exist close to a danger point of over-control and preciousness. A rose colored, oval work in this show is the worst victim; it is pallid and over-crafted. The artist tries to resist this tendency by maintaining a degree of clumsiness in the works by push-pinning them to the wall, cutting their edges roughly and by using that brown paper. But the paper has been so thoroughly sublimed it has lost most of its ruggedness.

Besides their latent over-refinement, the shapes of these paintings are troublesome. Only one of the paintings is a rectangle. The others are trapezoids or unique shapes with combinations of straight and convexly curved sides. Shaping appears to make these works more interesting at first, but that impression dispels as the basic discontinuity between the shapes and what is happening on their surface comes clear. At his best, Frank Stella merges external shape and interior structure into a single entity in his canvases. But Farber’s paintings have no explicit interior structure. His patterns of wrinkle and paint can only coexist with edge, never coalesce with it. Shaping is therefore a contrivance for him. He has also, in several paintings, combined exterior shaping with interior illusion of depth. Any hint of illusory space in depth in a canvas turns its edge into a frame and causes boundary and surface to break away from each other. This phenomenon is clearest in the trapezoid paintings.

Not only is Farber’s shaping theatrical, it is unnecessary. The one simple rectangular canvas in the show has more presence and substance than any of the others. Also several paintings in the show incorporate a subtle play between actual and illusory three-dimensionality that is far more interesting than the obvious one created by shaping. In these works,there is a shift from tactility to illusion at a middle viewing distance of about fifteen feet. At this point, the physicality of the textured surface disappears and a shallow, atmospheric space opens up. The shaping merely distracts from this unique shift of tactile, non-illusory object to illusory painting.

Kasha Linville