San Diego

Manny Farber

Manny Farber’s paintings are often written about in the context of his seminal film criticism, as if the significance and iconoclasm of his output in one medium is necessarily related to his equally inimitable production in another. But familiarity with his essays, which were published from the ’40s to the mid-’70s (a collection of the writing was reissued in 1998), is not required to get caught up in Farber’s art. The fact is, before the writing or the painting came the looking, and Farber looks and sees like nobody else. This is amply clear in “About Face,” a career overview of the eighty-seven-year-old artist’s lifetime output organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego with a particular emphasis on works completed since he retired from teaching twenty-five years ago (the show travels to the Austin Museum of Art and then to P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York).

After attending Berkeley, Stanford, and the California School of Fine Arts in the ’30s, Farber wound up in New York, where he wrote about film for the New Republic and came into contact with Pollock, Motherwell, and the Hofmann School gang. In the ’50s he made a name for himself writing about film, art, and jazz for The Nation and Commentary (and, by 1968, this magazine) while painting abstractions and doing carpentry on construction projects. His vaguely Johnsian, three-dimensional wood pieces of the early ’60s and the subsequent muted, tactile, gestural abstractions on collaged paper that can be hung recto or verso (1967–75) are eccentric and engaging and reminiscent of the unstructured works of Richard Tuttle. But movies seemed to make their influence felt as, in the early ’70s—a moment well past Pop’s fashionable impetus—Farber began to experiment with figuration. In the “Auteur,” 1973–75, and “Candy” paintings, 1976–77, titles refer to films and directors, and subject matter includes movie-house treats like Cracker Jacks, Cadbury bars, and Abba-Zabas. His 1970 move from Manhattan to the bucolic University of California, San Diego, campus had been another of a series of career-defining “about-faces” that changed his art.

By the ’80s, though direct cinematic references all but disappear, Farber began to approach his pictures like a director blocking a scene. He maintained the earlier aggressive horizontality but began to divide compositions into different-color sections; the quotidian became more domestic but remained autobiographical. In Story of the Eye, 1985, successive aqua, orange, black, white, and bright green squares make up the respective backdrops for a bird’s nest, a platter of fish, salad greens, pears, scribbled notes, pitchers of fresh-cut flowers, and a cracked-open crenshaw melon. Books open to reproductions of Goya, Giotto, Corot, and Vermeer share space with tangles of leaves, petals, twist-ties, bunches of onions, grocery lists, and, curiously, pieces of rebar: The flotsam and jetsam of a kitchen countertop are now the contents of the world of Farber. Though its themes are nature and vanitas, decay and remembrance, Story of the Eye, like Farber’s other large-scale works, is almost too exuberant to be called a still life. Rather, Farber buoys the painting along, pausing here and there to absorb and reflect, as if watching a film by one of the auteurs he championed, while moving toward the final frame.

Meghan Dailey