LOS ANGELES — In 1962, the painter and film critic Manny Farber, who died a decade ago, penned his famous essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.” White elephant art, he defines, is the kind that aspires to be “traditional Great Art”: it is grandiose and dull, striving too hard for fame. Termite art, on the other hand, has “no ambitions towards gilt culture” but is rather concerned with “observing and being in the world.” Curator Helen Molesworth recently clarified the distinction at a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) by suggesting we can find plenty of white elephant art “across the street” — i.e. the Broad, the $140 million building that only collects the greatest hits of contemporary art. Whereas currently at MOCA, the galleries are filled with termite art.
Molesworth’s exhibition One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art displays Farber’s paintings, spanning from the early 1970s to 2000, alongside contemporary art that is similarly “termite” in nature. In this exhibition — which includes painting, photography, sculpture, and video — you’ll peer into bathroom sinks and artist’s studios, inspect someone’s leftover lunch, and marvel at a field of stars. Wandering through the museum, you might wonder, as I did, how termite art is any different from a still life or any art that depicts the everyday. Some of you might also assume this kind of work is apolitical, perhaps boring, or unimportant in light of urgent issues. But Molesworth makes a compelling case for why we should be looking at this art now and why it is remarkable. (In fact, since seeing the show, I can’t stop thinking about it and how big of a misstep it was of MOCA to controversially fire Molesworth last year.)
These pictures, Molesworth insists in her catalogue essay, are not purely formalist — the artist here is not “separate from the space of the world, sitting at her easel, peering out at her subject.” Rather, the artists take after Farber, who, in Molesworth’s words, made “a picture not of how the world looked but of how it functioned.” These pictures aren’t studies of how light falls on a cluster of apples; they’re more private in nature, even a little bit weird, as they record all the gestures, objects, and rituals that make up our days. Whenever Farber sat down to paint, he tried to contain as much of his world as possible — down to chocolate bar bits, scrawled-on notebooks, loose nails, and cut-up fruit — while looking at the same scene from above, sideways, and below, as if to convey our immense human capacity to absorb and process our surroundings.
Farber called this a “horizontal” approach, where every object, each scenario in sight, is treated with equal focus. This, as Molesworth pointed out in her talk, can make looking at Farber’s paintings a difficult, overwhelming task. One’s attention is split, led in no particular direction, and no matter how long you stare at a painting, you won’t see it all — its universe is overflowing, spilling well beyond the corners of the frame. Because, Molesworth writes, “the everyday implies an endlessly horizontal proliferation of concerns.”
While reading Molesworth’s essay, I kept thinking of James Agee, who, in the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, embodied this “horizontal” approach to a tee — so much so that it tormented him. The book is both moving and trying as it endlessly describes sharecropper’s houses in the American South — down to the exact positioning of wooden planks, window shutters, and folded bed sheets. Only by describing the houses in the most painful of minutiae did he feel he could offer an honest portrait of these people’s circumstances — to convey a sense of “what is,” as he put it — but nevertheless, he knew he was failing them. If we wanted to get even close to grasping their reality, Agee suggests, we would have to read his book “as if all in one sentence.”
Agee, like Farber, was also a film critic — a coincidence, but a curious one. Both shared a common impulse to pause the world to get a closer look at it, to observe an image and not let it slip easily into the next, as a movie would. Molesworth, who took Farber’s final class on film at the University of California, San Diego, in 1988, recalls how he wouldn’t simply let his students watch movies from start to finish. Instead, he would pause them, play them backward, replay scenes over and over, and ask students to notice things like how actors moved their feet. Farber, Molesworth articulates, looked at a movie like a painting. “He is trying to look at a film ‘all at once,’” — she writes, echoing Agee’s desire to read his book “all in one sentence” — “rather than allowing himself to be sidelined by linear narrative.” Farber didn’t want us to be taken away with the moving image; he wanted us to hold it.
So why this desire to hold the world still? The art critic John Berger gave one explanation when he distinguished painting from film: In a movie, we travel along with the ephemeral scenes, always on the go and never staying in one place — an art form emblematic of the 20th century, marked by mass travel, displacement, and emigration. The static, painted image, on the other hand, provides us with a comforting sense of permanence: It “collects the world and brings it home.”
But Farber and Agee go further: they want to capture everything in one breath. In a 1982 essay titled “That Which Is Held,” Berger movingly describes the act of “holding” a subject through paint — the “will to preserve and complete” — as an act of love. Because, he writes, “the ideal act of love is to contain all.” And in order to do this, you must believe in an alternate view of time that isn’t linear: where the past, present, and future coexist in one embrace. In other words, through the act of “holding,” or loving, you can experience things “all at once,” “as if all in one sentence.” The termite artist doesn’t just collect the world, she actively loves it.
In One Day at a Time, our sense of time collapses as our attention is turned to Rodney McMillian’s lemon suspended in the darkness, the gorgeous balloon curtains in Catherine Opie’s photograph, or Lorna Simpson patiently waiting on the subway platform. Roni Horn photographs the gifts she has received over the years: a pair of leather gloves, an empty ceramic bowl, a watch. In a nearby gallery, Beverly Buchanan has delicately reconstructed the homes of people in the American South: modestly built with wooden planks, now scaled to the size of our hands. The artists in One Day at a Time are not simply illustrating the pretty or quotidian — they are indeed holding on to their surroundings, to the makeup of our days and selves.
Berger observes that “what is held” is “often historically determined.” Some of the subjects here feel as old as those of Dutch still lifes, but of course, it is the context in which we perceive these held objects that has also changed. For Molesworth, this context is an art world increasingly driven by the market, which seems to care less and less for “the human characteristics of curiosity, empathy, and critique.”
I get the sense that Molesworth also wants to “contain all” in the museum’s rooms, to care for and preserve all those human characteristics that can seem to be receding from view. “It’s entirely possible that One Day at a Time is a manifesto in sheep’s clothing, a wordless call for a gentler and more genuinely curious world,” she writes. Another way of putting it is that Molesworth’s One Day at a Time is a profound act of love.
One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) (250 S Grand Ave, Los Angeles) through March 11, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Helen Molesworth.