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Moving pictures

Whether painting with pigment or words, artist/film critic Manny Farber directs the eye from detail to detail.

September 28, 2003|Susan Freudenheim | Special to The Times

Leucadia, Calif. — On a recent Friday morning, Manny Farber -- dressed neck to toe in black -- sat at his breakfast table reading the newspaper and fretting about "Manny Farber: About Face," the retrospective surveying four decades of his paintings that was about to open at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. At a time fit for celebration of an unusually rich life's work, he'd been up all night worrying about an interview he was about to endure. He was also worried about whether his work adds up to anything. Left alone, he'll worry about everything.

"I am a synonym for quagmire," he growled in his characteristic self-deprecating and curmudgeonly way. It may be a defensive posture, but he is certainly not a simple person. Well-known and loved by many on the West Coast for his work as an artist, he is best known in other circles as a film critic -- the man who coined the notion of underground films in 1957, who eschewed star-style acting in favor of the small gesture, who was not afraid to "blame the audience" for the errors of Hollywood but was equally hard on some of the movie world's most beloved -- from Billy Wilder to Katharine Hepburn. He once famously called "Casablanca" "Casablank."

Over the years he's hardly changed; he's still got the look of the street-smart, mole-like New York intellectual, even though for more than 30 years he and his wife and frequent collaborator, painter Patricia Patterson, have lived in this northern San Diego County beach town. At 86, Manny Farber is not resting. Although he hasn't been writing criticism since the late 1970s, he's still as prolific a painter as many artists half his age. In addition to painting full time he goes to one or two movies a week so he can keep up with his film friends. ("Where's the cattle?" he remarked when asked about Kevin Costner's new western, "Open Range," which he'd just seen. "Seemed like it was all gunplay.") Farber has slowed some, but he's remarkably sprightly, and he's maintained the intensity and wry sense of humor that shines out from all the photos of him as a younger man; it's all there in his eyes.

Farber is an exceptionally visual person whose visceral observations have spilled into both his paintings and his writings on film and art. He admits that one form fed the other: In both, he has deliberately disregarded narrative in favor of imagery and spatial relationships.

He was an early friend and advocate of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists and wrote one of the first favorable reviews of Jackson Pollock's work. He was also a close friend of the pivotal Modernist art critic Clement Greenberg until they had a brawl in the '40s over who said what first. He continues to think and work in the tradition of Modernism, and his early paintings, some of which will be in the show, are abstract -- the earliest works included are painted-wood constructions, followed by paper collages with subtle fields of color.


Since the early '70s, Farber has worked exclusively on still lifes, painted realistically from a bird's-eye perspective on boards that he laid out on table tops. Each work depicts a series of objects -- from items related to film to vegetables and flowers. The most recent works show Farber loosening up his brushwork, illustrating both confidence and buoyancy.

"My paintings always do the same thing," he says, gesturing around his studio, which stands behind his home. It is an expansive space filled with about two dozen works completed in the past couple of years, most of which soon will be sent off to the Quint Contemporary Art gallery, Farber's representative in La Jolla, for a show that opens Oct. 19. All the works are filled with the detritus of the artists' lives -- flowers from Patterson's ever-expanding garden, pictures of historical art books open to favorite images, reproductions of small, handwritten notes inscribed with a word or two stolen from a conversation. There are also images of Farber's tools -- his palette knife and Sharpie markers attached to long sticks, which he uses to sketch out his vision. These objects appear to float on the colored backgrounds, which, reflecting the deep collaboration between the artists, Patterson prepares for him. Her own works -- landscapes and intimate paintings of domestic settings -- include the same vibrant palette that she has shared with Farber.

"They always start here," Farber says, pointing to the bottom of one large painting, "then swoop up, and then come across this way, and then they come down." As he talks, a harmony among all the works in the room suddenly becomes acutely obvious, and the drive to figure out what they mean disappears. Specifics fade as the images become like dance patterns laid out for the novice student. It's all about directing the viewer, Farber says, a way of moving the viewer's eye from detail to detail.

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