New York

Manny Farber

Rosa Esman Gallery

Looser and more insouciant than anything he has painted, Manny Farber’s most recent amalgams of landscape, still life, and symbolic self-portraiture are at once more relaxed and aggressive, jam-packed and freewheeling than any of his representational pictures from the past twenty years. In the past, straightforward oppositions between figure and ground, abstraction and representation, form and content informed Farber’s cleverly self-referential and often slyly humorous works. In his new pictures, these well-worn formal issues are overwhelmed by an excess of visual energy—bravura brushwork, juicy under-painting, keyed-up colors, jaunty juxtapositions, and expanded scale.

Beginning in the winter of 1991, Farber’s art took a turn to the liquid. The potted plants, gutted fish, cardboard stencils, Post-its, bits of rebar, and bouquets of flowers that hover in the strange, horizon-less space of his earlier works appear to be floating as if they were magically suspended in midair. Looking at his paintings from the ’80s is something like peering into the window of an antigravity chamber: it is as if they describe a realm free of gravity’s pull. The common vegetables, toy train-tracks, playing cards, and strips of film that star in his one-act, stop-action dramas simultaneously give the impression that they have the texture of solid substances and that they are nothing but insubstantial illusions.

In contrast, the objects in Farber’s works from the past year and a half look as if they’re suspended (or swimming) in a substance of greater density and resistance. It is as if they were buoyed by an invisible body of water in which they bob and dip, bump and abut, overlap and drift apart. Imagine looking down from a dock into a littered harbor in which natural and unnatural debris floats at slightly different levels amidst a thin film of spilled gasoline and motor oil.

The most significant difference between Farber’s recent paintings and his earlier works is that their grounds are no longer flat air-tight abstractions but turbulent layers of paint, themselves made up of congealed clots, wet-on-wet smears, translucent puddles of color, and arbitrary flourishes of spontaneous brushwork. Their backgrounds have recently become pulsating passages that actively drip, run, and bleed, occasionally showing through to half-hidden depths as they record aqueous traces of painted-out layers, lively highlights, accents, and outlines.

Sometimes spanning as many as five square panels and reaching up to 15 feet in length, Farber’s new paintings often contain crisp depictions of life-size gardening equipment, such as hoes, spades, and rakes. These heavy-duty tools, in contrast to the meticulous instruments normally associated with still life painting, are required to balance the intense contrasts, pungent colors, and dramatic formal acrobatics of his vibrant, colliding compositions. It is as if Farber has tipped Monet’s pond of lily pads on its end, after emptying his library, kitchen, and garden into its shallow waters. His powerfully contemporary images stake out a place for painting somewhere between nature and culture, where utter artifice and brute reality struggle for our attention.

David Pagel