Robert Farber

This compelling retrospective of paintings, mixed-media work, and video from 1985 to 1995 documents Robert Farber’s artistic development in the face of death. Farber, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1987, managed to produce his finest work in the last five years of his life. The forty-seven paintings and constructions on view chronicle the artist’s coming to terms with homosexuality, alcohol and drug abuse, alienation, and finally terminal illness.

Farber had been involved in theater and performance art until 1981, when he began to study at the Art Students League. His first accomplished paintings (like Night Window, 1985, a predominantly black canvas relieved by a painterly space of sky blues) were impersonal, almost generic Color-Field abstractions à la Gottlieb and Rothko. Although abstract painting provided a refuge from his troubled life, Farber began in 1987 to incorporate figurative imagery, in order that his work might serve as an outlet for his demons. Self Portrait, 1988, an oil on paper in black, gray, and blue, features a series of rectangles anchored by separate windows that contain images of a contemplative Farber, a screaming Baconian head, and a family portrait. The family, derived from a photograph, comprises a faceless father, mother, and four children numbered by birth order. Farber is an indistinct shadow in the group, the number two that represents him appearing not above his head, like those of his siblings, but in a window of Abstract Expressionist–style painting. A large kitchen knife points down toward the father.

Only after confronting the reality of his losing battle with AIDS, however, was Farber able to transcend the self-absorption of his early art. The video Sorry for the Interruption, 1994, created for Day without Art and first shown at Paula Cooper Gallery, opens with a shot of beautiful sandy beach beneath a clear blue sky; the theme from the 1959 movie A Summer Place plays on the sound track. Soon a gray dot appears on the horizon, quickly expanding to fill the entire screen, while a droning buzz obliterates the fantasy music. The video, which is about a minute long, repeats itself incessantly, in a brilliant metaphoric refusal to allow the viewer to forget the tragedy unfolding every day.

The centerpiece of the exhibition was the “Western Blot” series, 1991–94. These constructions, named for one of the tests used in detecting HIV, draw an analogy between AIDS and the Black Death of 1348–49 that undid much of Europe. They are composed panels of wood and Masonite painted and collaged with photographs, images, and texts, and outlined with fragments of gilt frames and cornices. Western Blot No. 19, 1993, is typical in its basic palette of grays, blacks, and whites. Its texts quote John Clyn of Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1349 (“I, as among the dead . . . have put into writing truthfully what I have heard and verified. . . . if by chance anyone be left in the future, and any child of Adam may escape this pestilence . . .”) and Vito Russo of New York in 1990: “Someday the AIDS crisis will be over, and when the day has come and gone there will be people alive on this earth who will hear that once there was a terrible disease and that a brave group of people stood up and fought, and in some cases died so that others might live.” Farber’s own blood-red handprint has been impressed on a paper graph of his diminishing T-cell count; an elegant white cornice divides fourteenth-and twentieth-century texts. The word “someday” calls out in large print above a panel with a photograph of a serene blue sky. In light of advances in the treatment of AIDS in the few years since Farber’s death, the willed optimism of Russo’s statement seems both prescient and deeply poignant.

Francine Koslow-Miller