San Diego

Manny Farber

Dietrich Jenny Gallery

Manny Farber’s paintings haven’t changed much in the past few years, they’ve just gotten better. The works are more subtle, both in color and form; the palette has become richer and the application of the paint more graceful. This exhibition of new works shows Farber making some of his most beautiful paintings in recent years.

Still life is currently Farber’s favored medium, and he has breathed new life into this traditional art form. Each of the pictures, all of which are painted with oil on board, is composed of a scattering of objects laid out on a background of one or more colored panels. In the smaller works the compositions are necessarily simple. In the larger ones, however, Farber has continued to devise a complex choreography of objects that often leads the eye in circles and spirals across the surface of the picture. Although the objects at first appear to be randomly placed, nothing is really random in Farber’s paintings. His pieces are made slowly, with the canvas laid horizontally on a table surface; Farber often repeats an object at more than one place in a single painting, creating subtle rhythms and patterns within the complex structure of the imagery.

This show consisted of 21 paintings, of which the 13 smaller works showed the greatest change in Farber’s style. Where once he used primary-colored backgrounds, now rust colors are common, or deep, rich shades of marine- and aqua-blue. The objects once chosen primarily for their narrative qualities—often as references to movies—are now selected as much, if not more so, for their shape and form. In Four Green Mussels, 1988, Farber uses his subject as a reason to mix colors with his palette knife. The images are decidedly about the quality of materials which are used to make them; the paint asserts itself; the colors mix on, not off, the picture plane; and the realism of the imagery is confined mostly to the fact that Farber paints in one-to-one scale. Most of the larger pictures also contain Farber’s trademark written commentaries. A one-time art and film critic, Farber seems unable to keep remarks out of his art. These notes draw you into the picture and get you to move up close to the lustrous picture surface.

Among the most evocative paintings in this show is a medium-sized picture-entitled Visitor, 1988, which has as its centerpiece the image of a dead bird. Painted on a rich, rust-colored background, the bird is flanked on one side by a cardboard cutout form, on the other by the cardboard silhouette frame of that same form. Each of these have been painted in shades of blue, and their shape vaguely echoes that of the bird, a device that simultaneously emphasizes the figure’s two-dimensionality and contradicts it. Visitor, like so many of the pictures here, announces a new sensuality in Farber’s application of paint and that, too, marks a wonderful change.

Susan Freudenheim