A Painter, but Still a Critic

From the October 17, 1994 issue of New York Magazine.

Manny Farber is brooding. “Exhibits are an anachronism,” the 77-year-old painter says morosely. His wife, the artist Patricia Patterson, excuses her husband’s dark mood.

“Manny didn’t sleep last night,” she says, “he was so worried about how his paintings were hung.” Farber and Patterson had flown in from San Diego to find the Frumkin/Adams Gallery on 57th Street locked and a painting Farber says he has “been trying to lose for years” in its second-floor window.

“Manny was trying to look at it.” says a witness. “He was in the middle of 57th Street with cars racing by him from either side.”

These show openings drive Farber crazy. Not so much the paintings as the fact that no one wants to talk to him about them. “All people want to talk about is movies.”

Farber, the legendary former movie critic for The New Republic, The Nation, and Artforum, is at once laconic and coiled, like the semi-psychotic heroes of the dark fifties Westerns he once championed. Wiry and erect, with a high, angled forehead framed by soft white hair, he is by turns a galaxy removed and then raspily intimate. (Patterson says that when Farber comes to her openings–where he’s not the center of attention–he insists on bringing the dog, acts bored, and leaves early, saying, “I have to take the dog for a walk.”) I have seen the pair in art museums, entranced, scribbling on sketch pads, communicating as if by telepathy–a process so intimate that I was asked (in pained tones) to go away.

Farber’s also his own best and worst critic. I heard him lecture on movies in San Francisco in 1987. Quixotic and densely evocative, he made constant reference to space–its texture, its porousness, the way an actor possessed it. I’ve never looked at a frame of film the same way, yet every time I see him he apologizes for rambling that night. Rambling suits Farber’s aesthetic, though. In his influential essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” he celebrates works that have “no ambitions toward gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything.”

“It’s a good theory,” says Farber. “I’m not dis-proud of it. Unreadable article, though.”

Farber’s paintings suggest huge, multicolored desktops onto which the contents of his psyche have exploded. Enter into a Farber painting and you’re bounced like a pinball from onion plants to cherries to tiny paintings within a painting, hurtled across the frame on long gardening stanchions, and stopped dead by fragments of despairing text–accounts of anxiety dreams that might feature such film friends as Pauline Kael, Nicholas Ray, or Paul Schrader.

At the opening (the exhibit runs through October 15), Julian Schnabel admires the paintings but lumbers around throwing off unkempt criticisms: He wishes Farber would stay with a single image, a single emotion, a single gesture. Farber paraphrases his own termite theory: “I try for a kind of busyness, spillage, surplus….”

“I wish I could do better defending my work,” he says later. “I know exactly what Schnabel’s talking about. You’re not supposed to paint pictures with so much multiplication.” Actually, the best reply would be Farber’s defense of Preston Sturges, who was criticized by the director René Clair for wanting to do everything at once: “What Clair is suggesting,” wrote Farber, “is that Sturges would be considerably improved if he annihilated himself.”

A Painter, but Still a Critic