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Paintings that criticize themselves

Manny Farber's works in San Diego are filled with clues to sources and meanings, even while suggesting the final word won't come.

October 08, 2003|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

SAN DIEGO — Dear Manny Farber: You make a critic's job deliciously difficult. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is filled now with more than 30 years of your paintings, and it's a tremendous show, as intellectually rich as it is sensually satisfying.

But it's also tricky terrain. You've been here, on this side of the critical divide. You wrote for decades about film -- from the early '40s to the early '70s, for the New Republic, the Nation, Artforum -- with brutally honest intelligence. You're aware of criticism's tendency to tame the wild beast of art, to break it down, as you've written, into easily managed elements, all within easy reach.

That's the last thing, I'm sure, that you want to happen to your own work, and you've done a remarkable job forestalling it. For one thing, you've kept stretching as an artist, making yourself a moving target, one that we have to stretch to keep up with. And, perhaps partially out of desire to be understood, and partially out of a chronic skepticism, an underestimation of your audience, you've spiked your paintings with cues -- written notes, art books open to significant images, and so on. You let us know what's important, and you do it in the form of direct address, spilling (and spelling) out the dreams and doubts that feed into the work. The paintings are like performances that come with their own built-in commentary.

You've even defined a few aesthetic categories in your criticism that apply to your own work. The term you favor is "termite art," which you described in an essay some 40 years ago as art (both visual art and film) that "goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity." Termite art is dynamic, not precious, its makers "ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved."

Well put. When we look at your paintings from the mid-'70s on, we see tabletops of thoughtful clutter, common objects linked to your daily practice: bars and boxes of candy typically found in movie theaters, where you've spent a tremendous amount of time since you were a child, and little bottles of Wite-Out, the writer's eraser before the backspace key came along. The paintings are amusing to look at, for sure, and they testify to your industry, but like all of your work since, they also bear traces of self-doubt. Did you wonder if it was legitimate to make eye candy in an art world increasingly dominated by high concept? Where is the confidence and bravado of the Abstract Expressionist painters you hung out with a few decades earlier in New York? Instead, your desk is littered with correction fluid, the safety hatch of the unsure.

The paintings themselves, though, only get better and better, your touch more knowing, your imagery more complex. The "Auteur" series of the late '70s and early '80s makes even more explicit your work's kinship with film. References to film titles, directors and even snippets of dialogue enter the frame, which you impose in the manner of a director yourself. You arrange the still-life objects -- now flashcards, fruit, little human figures and animals, notes and open books -- in loose visual paths that steer the eye through a scene. Lengths of miniature train track circle through or crisscross the canvas, much like spans of Rebar or sunflower stalks do in the later paintings, providing strong structural bones. Background surfaces neatly sectioned in bold primary colors inject order too.

Your paintings seem to unfurl in time, like film or fiction. Some of them, painted in a wide panoramic format, encourage a reading from left to right and back again. Even in the round canvases, or those with checkerboard grounds, there is a sense of time elapsing. Just as you hoped, you have made termite art of your own, an "ambulatory creation which is an act both of observing and being in the world, a journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside world through a horizontal coverage."

In your paintings, objects with dimensionality are seen from an elevated, slightly angled perspective, more or less continuous with our experiential space. Flatter objects such as papers and train tracks are rendered from directly above and operate more explicitly in the abstracted realm of plane and line. You flirt with trompe l'oeil illusionism but recognize that there's more fun and friction in playing the two- and three-dimensional off of one another.

This is one of the ways in which you ally yourself with the late-19th century American still-life painters, especially John Peto (1854-1907). He, too, thrived on the clutter of the studio and used it to track internal narratives. He painted calling cards, newspaper clippings, photographs, art reproductions, ticket stubs and other ephemera as if adhered to doors or walls, sometimes held fast by his bone structure of choice, the crisscrossing tapes of a letter rack.

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